I’ll always remember this experiment as it fascinated me endlessly in grade 12 psychology. During the summer holidays at Standford University, a makeshift prison was created within the University in an attempt to simulate prison conditions and study the results. Teachers rooms were turned into cells for three people, a storage closet was designated as solitary confinement, and the school offered students pay of 15 dollars a day to be involved in a prison simulation. Once the 24 college students needed had been picked, half of them were assigned as guards and the other half assigned as inmates. Three students per side were alternates, so there were nine people on either side. The prisoners were forced to stay onsite for the experiment, while the guards worked in shifts and were able to leave the school between shifts. As a part of the study, the guards were told to be cruel to a certain extent. But events spiraled out of control quickly, much to the shock and horror of the man running the test, Dr. Philip Zimbardo.
The guards were given specific instructions: “You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy … We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.”
The prisoners were labelled numbers and were addressed as such, stripping them of their individuality. The guards were all issued uniforms to look like guards, at the same time creating an illusion of authority. Every guard also wore sunglasses to prevent any eye-contact between prisoners and guards. In retrospect, it seems obvious that something was going to go wrong. But it is easy to say this 45 years after it happened.
The film follows what really happened quite closely, while the acting is universally solid, especially Billy Crudup as Dr. Zimbardo, who himself becomes enveloped in what the experiment turns into. The colour palette and lens used to shoot the film give it a very analogue feeling, as if it was shot using 1970’s technology. It is easy to mistake it for a documentary at times. The camerawork is appropriately claustrophobic, with countless facial close-ups, studying the emotions of each prisoner or guard. It is a chillingly realistic recreation, as both the inmates and the guards take their roles seriously in, what was in the 1970’s, unprecedented and unexpected ways.
The final outcome of the experiment/film will remain timeless, and is especially relevant in today’s society. There is a reason it is taught around the world; it demonstrates what humans are capable of when put in a position of total authority, and how this affects prisoners who have been stripped of their personality. Most importantly though it demonstrates a willingness to obey authority, to an extreme extent, as the prisoners lose their identities and rarely complain despite the guards breaking the rules initially agreed on. The experiment has been criticised for not being big enough to accurately represent the human race, as all the students selected were male, white and middle-class. But it still makes for interesting reading, and it certainly makes for an interesting film, even if you know what is going to happen next. If you don’t, it will be even better.
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