In recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Stanford Prison Experiment, we decided to watch the relatively recent film The Experiment (2010), an American remake of the famed Das Experiment (2001). Both films are based loosely on events that transpired during a historic week in the basement of a Stanford University building. In the Prison study, now a classic in the annals of psychology, people were recruited from the surrounding community, and assigned to role-play as ‘guards’ or ‘prisoners’ in a mock jail. The participants were given a set of rules to follow, based on their assigned role, in order to facilitate the atmosphere of the jail. Though the researchers planned on running the study for two weeks, the experiment was terminated after only six days as the participants unexpectedly adopted their roles too thoroughly. The ‘guards’ began to abuse the ‘prisoners’, demeaning and humiliating them, and dehumanizing them viciously. Over the course of just 6 days, ‘prisoners’ lost their sense of will and independence, and became depersonalized and depressed. The original study is famed for its demonstration that, when it comes to overt behavior, regular, law-abiding everyday people are capable of terrible things under the influence of certain situational factors. Though the Stanford Prison experiment is not without criticism, decades of psychological research shows that one thing is clear: ‘good’ people can do ‘bad’ things.
The plot of the film follows the recorded events relatively faithfully, but introduces unexpected themes of ‘survival’, ‘evolution’, and ‘instinct’ (what do these clips of eels fighting and dead puppies have to do with anything?) The most unfortunate thing about The Experiment (2010), however, is that it overlooks the critical conclusion of the Stanford Prison experiment, and one that we, in assessing the behaviour of others, frequently lose sight of— often, a person’s behaviour is more attributable to the demands of a situation than personal dispositions. Indeed, even well-adjusted, psychologically stable individuals are capable of shocking behavior under certain social pressures. The film however, prefers to attribute the malice and abuse to a few ‘crazy’ individuals in need of psychological help, bent on fulfilling sadistic desires that they harbour within dark places inside their twisted minds. A recurring theme in the film is the notion that humans are exceptional, and differ from other animals when it comes to violence: “Still think we’re higher on the evolutionary chain than monkeys?” asks an ex-con to prisoner 77 (played by Adrien Brody). “Yea, because we can still do something about it”, he replies, and looks off with an air of nobility. Though we do not wish to open this bag of philosophical worms here, we do want to point out that The Experiment (2010) fails at addressing its inspiration’s true message. To make matters worse, at the end of the film we feel passionate about our moral strengths, as thought they are handed to us from divine sources, rather than feeling more compassionate towards the guards and prisoners who both suffered psychologically because of the despicable situation they found themselves in.
More on The Experiment (2010) here
More on Das Experiment (2001) here
More on the Stanford Prison Experiment here
Adelstein, M. (Producer), Scheuring, P. (Director). (2010).The Experiment [Motion picture]. United States: Stage 6 films.