Tinkering with Reality


In quantum physics, the very act of observing an electron affects the results: we can observe the velocity or position of an electron, but not both at the same time. An analogy to this is that the presence of news media changes an event being reported because people behave differently when they know they are being observed.

In 1971 there was an experiment designed and supervised by a psychologist, Dr. Zimbardo. The subjects of that experiment were university students. Forty-Four years later the event was replicated in a 2015 film. Both events are titled The Stanford Prisoner Experiment; both events are reviewed and discussed extensively in books, essays, school classrooms, and online. But I think—and hope—that this article provides an additional and fresh perspective of that experiment.


Theater is an art. It slips in and out of reality with the exquisite agility of a chameleon. In the performing arts, reality and fantasy are blended by collaborative artists.

Audiences also collaborate with artists. When viewing a film, an audience allows itself to suspend its sense of reality. It ignores the fact that the actor’s words are scripted, that the director directed the film as a whole, and that actors do more than just speak their lines.

Early in the film, we are shown a staged ‘arrest’ of a student. Like that student, we are already fully aware that his arrest is staged. (In the original 1971 experiment, although students had been previously vetted and selected for the experiment, they did not expect ‘police’ to arrest them! I read somewhere that the policeman was real.) In the film, the student openly flashes knowing smiles and chuckles as he is frisked, handcuffed, blindfolded, and led into a real police car.

The film cuts to a simulated ‘prison,’ a hallway in the basement of Stanford University that includes a row of offices which are made to look like barred prison cells. Like his fellow student ‘prisoners,’ he has his blindfold removed and is deloused by students who play ‘prison guards.’ For a few minutes into an orientation session, the jocular tone set at the arrest scene continues.

But the fun is short-lived. One of the guards implicitly but firmly asserts guard leadership and establishes an abusive tone beginning midway during the orientation session and becoming increasingly sadistic through the rest of the experiment.

Fast Forward: A moment after the body of the film ends in Black Screen, there is a tag of four or five clips beginning with the actor who played Dr. Zimbardo. Still playing the doctor, he delivers a brief monologue in which he states that the results of the experiment surpassed his expectations. I assume that his words, if not literally those of the real Dr. Zimbardo, are paraphrases of his words.

Incongruously, whereas the actor sits behind his desk and speaks directly to the audience still in character, all the other actors except two appear in neutral sets (curtains) and without a hint of their film characters, speak directly to the audience as themselves.

Their identities as ‘self’ rather than ‘character’ is clear when one of them tells the audience, “The person I knew as ‘Tom’ was disappearing.” Another unmistakable indication that they are speaking for themselves is that the actor who played the leader of the guards in the film drops his southern accent in the clip he shares with a prisoner. Like all the others, these two actors are no longer in costume.

In what is the last and most notable clip in the tag, these two actors speak to each other. The guard’s tone is detached and calm as it mostly is in the body of the film; the prisoner’s tone is accusative and angry as if he had ‘lived’ his role. During their confrontational dialogue (not necessarily in this order) the prisoner berates the guard with “You’re a nice guy…I know you’re a nice guy” but bitterly accuses him of over-the-top cruelty. Whereupon, the guard coolly asks the prisoner, “What would you have done in my position?” The prisoner angrily responds, “I don’t know…I wasn’t…I don’t know what I would do.” Referring to the guard’s portrayal of cruelty, the prisoner sarcastically commends the guard for his “masterpiece” performance and that he could not possibly match it. He also compliments the guard for his sadistic “inventiveness.”

Inventiveness? Whoa! The film is scripted! Yet, we are expected to believe that the guard invented lines and actions while the cameras rolled! The prisoner’s reference to the guard’s ‘inventiveness’ is blatantly incompatible with the film’s otherwise straightforward screenplay. But I found no criticism of that incompatibility in any of the many articles I read about the film.

I think I know why I found no mention of that incompatibility. One of the original prisoners in the 1971 experiment was an amateur actor! His name was Eshelman. He apparently slipped under the radar when he was vetted and accepted as a subject for the experiment. During the entire experiment, Eshelman unilaterally chose to play his role as a sadistic guard. As is often cited, Eshelman modeled his character after Strother Martin’s portrayal in Cool Hand Luke (1967). I haven’t seen that film but from what I’ve read, the 2015 film actor played his guard modeled after that of Strother Martin. Perhaps he chose to play a copy of a copy or he may have been obliged to do that. Either way that is a trivial matter.

However, what is of consequence is Mr. Eshelman’s real performance in the 1971 experiment. It was not exactly what it seemed to be. He didn’t play an ordinary guard as he had been chosen to do. Instead, he unilaterally and secretly set out to see how far his sadistic words and actions would take him before the prisoners would tell him to curtail his cruelty. That is exactly what the 2015 film’s guard tells the prisoner in their confrontational clip, much to the prisoner’s chagrin.

In that clip, those two actors speak as themselves but not really for themselves even though the scene is ostensibly played as an extemporaneous encounter session. The clip does not conform to the pattern established by the three or four other clips. The inconsistency may be 1) an artistic oversight or 2) an attempt to compensate for the absence of the Eshelman factor in the film’s narrative or 3) a powerful revelation of the lingering harmful effects that a negative environment can inflict on an individual even though he is an actor who not only knows that the situation is simulated but that the situation is in and of itself similar to his make believe profession!

Item 1, although possible, is extremely unlikely. Item 2 is possible because a) it helps support the documentary aspects of the original experiment and b) because it satisfies those who are familiar with the underlying Eshelman factor, a story within a story which would add time to the film and complicate its basic message. Item 3 is not credible. Harmful effects have been reported by laymen subjects who have subjected themselves to situational behavior experiments. I take them at their word. But the experiment’s subjects in the film are professional actors. Tom’s description of his ‘disappearing’ self is not credible. Statements of other prisoners with similar descriptions of their experience are also not credible. The same is so of our furious prisoner. There are several reasons why many actors give credence to the notion of ‘living the role,’ the main one of which is that it makes good copy. But good actors are too busy practicing their acting craft to get ‘lost in the role,’ A Double Life (1948) notwithstanding.

The clip is strategically placed at the very end of the film’s tag. That placement is not a matter of chance. It is placed there as the main feature of what is basically an epilogue. I also think that the actors were in the awkward position of having to glance for a prompt or two, especially at the end of their scene when the guard seemed to question someone ‘out there’ with his eyes as to whether he should go on with the scene or end it. This is not at all to say that the scene isn’t done well. On a personal note, I congratulate the screenwriter, director, actors, and technicians for the creation of a good film despite the challenges and ambiguity of its subject matter.

According to Dr. Zimbardo, actors who applied for participation in the experiment were assigned roles as guards or prisoners by the flip of a coin. It follows that the flip of a coin determined the specific results of that particular experiment. But Eshelman’s real performance heavily determined the experiment’s results.

What if the coin flip had designated Eshelman as a prisoner instead of a guard!

Flipping a coin implies that human behavior is universally uniform. Dr. Zimbardo’s experiment ‘begs the question’ at its conception. Psycosociological experiments invariably do that. That does not happen with illusive electrons. Even if we discount the doctor’s premises, subjectivity, and experimental interventions and the students’ knowledge that they are being observed as subjects in an experiment, it and all others like it are fatally flawed by the scientifically mandatory exclusion of moral issues, the very essence of what is being studied!


“Choice is a corollary of free will. Neither can exist without the other.”

In other words, moral judgment is obviated when an individual finds himself at the receiving end of a bullet.

Although psychosocial and clinical therapy can be very helpful to us, the essence of human behavior is better described by fine artists. They are much better at it. For example, the films Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, and Judgment at Nuremberg have much more to say about human behavior than any experiment possibly can. Sophie did what she had to do; Schindler was compassionately compelled to do what he did under great risk to himself; and moral judgment is a profoundly personal matter for millions of anonymous people in darkened theaters throughout the world.

Rewind: The purpose of the experiment and several similar experiments worldwide before, during, and after the Stanford experiment reenacted in the 2015 film, was and remains an attempt to determine whether people are wired to alter their moral behavior under duress or maintain immutable moral standards whatever the situation. That is part of the centuries-old philosophic headings like Nature vs. Nurture, more recently packaged as Genes vs. Environment or Person vs. Situation and the granddaddy of them all: Free Will vs. Determinism.

The Stanton prison experiment wobbles on intellectual quicksand. For example, there is a scene in which a prisoner asks for a parole in what we know to be a staged ‘parole hearing.’ The bogus ‘Parole Board’ consists of Dr. Zimbardo, a few assistants, and the doctor’s girlfriend who volunteered to be part of the simulated board. Given the opening dialogue for that scene there is nothing to indicate whether the prisoner plays along with the elaborately staged hearing because he believes he must do so or because he believes that his imprisonment is real after all.

In either case, as the scene progresses the prisoner desperately pleads for a parole: this time unquestionably for real. In response to his desperate pleas for a parole, one of the doctor’s assistants coldly ‘reads’ aloud a list of the prisoner’s bogus criminal charges. The prisoner remains silent even though he, like all the other students, had no criminal records whatever. In the middle of the assistant’s recitation of charges, the volunteer surreptitiously glances over the assistant’s shoulder and notices that he is ‘reading’ fake charges from a blank sheet of paper.

The actress plays that moment as though her suspicions are aroused. As a viewer, I thought, “Had Dr. Zimbardo neglected to tell her that none of the students ever had real criminal charges against them?” Despite more pleading, the prisoner is denied parole and is on his way out of the room under guard custody when she interrupts their exit and asks the prisoner if he would forfeit his pay in exchange for a parole. He definitively says he would, and he and the guard exit. There follows a dramatic and meaningful series of glances amongst the remaining ‘board’ that projects serious ethical concerns about what has just happened.

If the scene reflects an incident that occurred in the real 1971 experiment, as I believe it does, it raises questions about the validity of the experiment itself. Even if the student in the original experiment (and on film) believed that his imprisonment was somehow real, it would have taken nothing short of a lobotomy for him to have forgotten his alleged charges, let alone the stipulation in his contract that he could quit the experiment at any time.

All he had to do at the hearing was demand to be released all together!

In both the film and its tag, when the actor who plays Dr. Zimbardo speaks of the results of the experiment, he speaks of them as though they are amazing. I too am amazed, but for reasons radically different than those of the doctor. I am amazed by the real doctor Zimbardo’s naïve notion that human behavior can be accurately analyzed when the ‘subjects’ know that they are being observed. I am amazed that psychologists—of all people—accept roleplaying as evidentiary for real-life prison behavior, especially since the students have no prison records or criminal charges and that their source for information about prison life is the movies! The students do not live prison life, they act it. For example, all the students are told that the guards would run the prison and dictate all prison rules but they must not physically harm the prisoners.

Where does that happen in real prisons!

I am also amazed by Dr. Zimbardo’s words:

Essentially I was the pilot of the movie and then I was the researcher and unfortunately the superintendent who got sucked into the situation…I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than research psychologist.

What happened to the inviable ‘independent variable’ principle for all scientific experiments! When that question is asked of the doctor, he rudely cuts the questioner off with, “Are you questioning my authority?”

But what mostly amazes me about human behavioral experiments is that anyone—let alone a psychologist—believes that experiments are necessary to demonstrate that there are no limits to negative ‘situational behavior.’ History and current events are packed with real examples of negative situational behavior. The same is true of heroic behavior, although that reality is generally understated in most reports of situational behavior.

Largely of interest to prison administrators, the results of the Stanford prison experiment told us what we already knew before Day One of the experiment. They add nothing to the body of knowledge gathered from the most infamous events in recorded history such as the Nazi Holocaust. It doesn’t take a certified psychologist to know that Nazi occupied Europe, including Germany, was a huge outdoor prison run by leaders who were morally destitute. Add to that the carefully selected sadistic commandants who ran the concentration camps within that outdoor prison and you have the ultimate examples of ‘situational behavior.’ The films cited above amply and brilliantly deal with real life human behavior. Going a step further, I posit that our behavior is a complex phenomenon that simultaneously and continuously combines both internal and external factors.

I hope I do not offend holocaust victims and their loved ones when I cite those unspeakable situations in the same article that discusses pointless experiments. I do that only because both subjects refer to the same issue.

With tongue in cheek, I suggest that if the students’ simulated prison had consisted of luxurious rooms in a posh hotel with exquisite dinners served on demand, the results of the experiment would be essentially the same: the students would be ‘at each other’ shortly after they met. Dr. Zimbardo did not account for testosterone taking its natural course.

Would testosterone alone have generated the student and guard negative behavior? You bet it would. Men have killed each other because of fender-benders. When probing human behavior, the possible factors required to almost fully understand it is staggering. Wouldn’t the prisoners act as they did because they knew the guards would not physically harm them with their strictly decorative nightsticks? Wouldn’t the guards or prisoners ignore their moral principles because they were just acting? Actors do that all the time. If they didn’t we’d have run out of Desdemona’s long ago. I silently asked myself hundreds of mostly rhetorical questions as I watched the film. I’m sure lots of us do.

For all we know, the amateur actor who played the main guard in the original experiment may have indulged in an autoerotic S&M fantasy, especially when he invented the Frankenstein and Camel tasks for the prisoners. Had he tried that with real prisoners they would have assaulted him on the spot with the intent to kill. There is no question about that!

The film’s tag includes a huge table around which are gathered the film’s ensemble of artists. I see that tableau as a sort of curtain call. No one speaks. As an ensemble, the actors project a subtext of reflection. Although also pensive, the actor who played the sadistic guard arrogantly puffs a cigarette and skillfully exhales perfect smoke-rings. Like the character he played, he had his own agenda. Actors always know they are being observed.


For centuries, ethics has held its place as a major branch of philosophy. When I was a teenager, I became aware of the concept of the Nature vs. Nurture argument. I thought—and still think—that nature and nurture are the palette from which our individual brush mixes, matches, and creates the colors that build our character, a function of our will. Unlike the illusive electron, we have the free will within us to behave negatively or positively whether we are observed or not. By that, I don’t mean as subjects of an experiment. So called ‘results’ of situational and/or genetic behavior tell us very little about an individual’s ethics.

Ethical standards are not necessarily religious or measurable by secular group conformity. They are not contingent upon an individual’s intelligence. They are not (as is often supposed) one kind of ethics (say, in business or medicine) and another kind of ethics in some other profession. They are not contingent to extraordinary circumstances or genetic composition. Rather, they are self-evident and quietly practiced on a daily basis. They are also not predetermined. They are a matter of choice.

Who we want to be is the most important choice of our lives.

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