Will the Stanford Prison Experiment Ever Die?
The most famous psychology study in history has once again been debunked
We like to think of science as a self-correcting discipline that tends inevitably toward truth. Sometimes, though, conventional wisdom becomes so entrenched that it takes a paradigm shift to overturn it.
Psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment has become something like a paradigm unto itself, a scientific blockbuster which has so thoroughly penetrated both academia and pop culture that more than 40 years of ethical and methodological criticism have failed to dislodge it. According to the conventional narrative that appears in most introductory psychology textbooks, Zimbardo randomly assigned 24 young male research subjects to be “prisoners” or “guards” in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology department, giving them no specific guidance on how to enact their roles; within a week, the guards had begun abusing the prisoners so badly that the experiment had to be shut down.
As I discovered over two years of research and interviews with former participants, the true story of what happened during that August week in 1971 was very different. In June 2018, I published an article for Medium making a radical claim: The most famous psychology experiment of all time was a sham. To my surprise, the exposé made headlines all around the world, from Singapore to Denmark. Zimbardo decried this wave of criticism as unfounded attacks on his integrity. In response, more than 100 research psychologists around the world signed an open letter calling for open criticism as an essential part of the scientific process.
My article drew in part on the work of Thibault Le Texier, a French filmmaker and research fellow at the University of Nice. In 2013, Le Texier had set out to make a documentary about the Stanford prison experiment (SPE) from the perspective of the participants rather than the researchers. But after digging through never-before-seen archival material that Zimbardo had recently released to the Stanford University Library, he arrived at the same stunning conclusion I did: The official narrative of the SPE was simply untrue. In April 2018, Le Texier published Histoire d’un Mensonge [The History of a Lie], a gripping…