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  • One of the most infamous

  • psychological studies ever conducted

  • was the Stanford Prison Experiment.

  • It's mentioned in almost every intro to psychology textbook.

  • They tend to focus on how unethical it was,

  • and are less critical of its supposed conclusion.

  • August 14th, 1971.

  • Palo Alto, California.

  • Twelve young men are rounded up from their homes by police,

  • placed under arrest,

  • and brought to a makeshift prison

  • in the basement of Stanford University.

  • It all begins as a study on the psychology of prison life,

  • led by Stanford psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo.

  • 24 volunteers--

  • 12 guards and 12 prisoners.

  • --have agreed to spend the next two weeks

  • recreating life in a correctional facility.

  • [guard]

  • The prisoners are booked and stripped nude.

  • They're no longer individuals,

  • forced to wear smocks, stocking caps and shackles.

  • Identified only by their prisoner numbers.

  • The guards quickly adapt to their new profession.

  • Given anonymity by their mirrored sunglasses,

  • some of them start to control the meager food rations,

  • restrict prisoners' bathroom use.

  • And, as tensions rise,

  • so do their cruel methods.

  • Within just six days of the planned two-week study,

  • conditions are so bad

  • that the entire operation is shut down.

  • [man]

  • Goddamn it...

  • The study makes international headlines.

  • Zimbardo's fame skyrockets,

  • and his conclusions are taught to students worldwide,

  • used as a defense in criminal trials

  • and are even submitted to Congress

  • to explain the abuses inflicted at Abu Ghraib.

  • The study brings up a question

  • just as important then as it is today:

  • is evil caused by the environment,

  • or the personalities in it?

  • Zimbardo's shocking conclusion

  • is that when people feel anonymous

  • and have power over depersonalized others,

  • they can easily become evil.

  • And it occurs more often than we'd like to admit.

  • But while it's true that people were mean to each other

  • during the Stanford Prison Experiment,

  • what if what truly caused that behavior

  • wasn't what we've always been told?

  • The Stanford Prison Experiment

  • has always had its controversies.

  • But a wave of recent revelations

  • have pushed it back into the spotlight

  • 47 years later.

  • Today, I'm going to speak with journalist Ben Blum,

  • whose recent writings have brought criticism

  • of the experiment to a larger audience

  • than ever before.

  • How did you get involved in the Stanford Prison Experiment

  • in the first place?

  • Well, my involvement was quite personal.

  • Like everyone, I had kind of absorbed

  • the basic lesson of the experiment

  • through the cultural ether.

  • And then my cousin Alex was arrested for bank robbery.

  • This was a team of mostly military guys with AK-47s.

  • Alex was the driver.

  • He was a 19-year-old U.S. Army Ranger.

  • And it was a superior of his on the Rangers

  • that organized and led the bank robbery.

  • Alex thought the whole thing was a training exercise.

  • He was just so brainwashed in this intense Ranger training

  • that when a superior proposed this bank robbery,

  • he took it as just one more kind of tactical thought experiment.

  • Then Dr. Philip Zimbardo participated

  • in his legal defense.

  • Zimbardo submits a letter to the court,

  • advocating leniency in sentencing on the grounds

  • that Alex, my cousin, had been so transformed

  • by the social environment of the Ranger battalion

  • that he participated in the bank robbery

  • without exercising his own free will.

  • Well, how did that affect Alex's sentencing?

  • He received an extraordinarily lenient sentence of 16 months.

  • So Zimbardo was a family hero.

  • But over time, Alex, finally he did admit to me,

  • you know what, I knew this was a bank robbery by the end,

  • and I just didn't have the moral courage to back out.

  • Oh, wow.

  • Alex, myself and our whole family

  • came to view the Zimbardo argument

  • as a way to shirk personal culpability,

  • and to put all the blame on the situation.

  • So you start looking

  • at the Stanford Prison Experiment in particular.

  • You reached out to Dr. Zimbardo himself,

  • as well as some of those who participated.

  • What did you learn?

  • I learned, to my deep surprise,

  • that quite a number of the participants

  • had stories of their experience that completely contradicted

  • the official narrative.

  • Which is, look, these regular people,

  • good people, came together,

  • and because of the situation, became evil.

  • [Ben] Right.

  • Zimbardo has claimed that the guards

  • were put in the situation,

  • and then the kind of hidden wellspring of sadism

  • that apparently lies in all of us

  • unfolded organically.

  • [Zimbardo]

  • There was an orientation meeting for the guards.

  • They had been told quite explicitly

  • to oppress the prisoners.

  • That falls under the heading of what psychologists call

  • demand characteristics.

  • Experimental subjects tend to be motivated

  • to give experimenters what they want.

  • [Michael] Demand characteristics occur

  • whenever participants being studied

  • act differently than they normally would

  • because they've guessed what hypothesis is being tested

  • and feel that a certain kind of behavior is being demanded.

  • There was a recording of explicitly correcting a guard

  • who wasn't being tough enough.

  • So a conclusion you could make

  • from the Stanford Prison Experiment

  • is that when you tell people to be cruel,

  • they'll do it if you tell them

  • it's for a greater good, like science.

  • -Right. -Who would have thought?

  • I think the study stands still as a fascinating spur

  • to further more careful research

  • as a demonstration that should make anyone curious

  • as to how such extreme behavior could arise

  • in such a short time.

  • The experiment could still be useful,

  • but it might need to be reinterpreted.

  • Its data might lead to different conclusions

  • than the one that we've been telling for so many decades.

  • Right.

  • The flaws in the experiment

  • that Ben and other critics bring up

  • call into question large portions of the narrative

  • surrounding the study.

  • So I want to hear from someone who was actually there.

  • Dave Eshelman, the study's most infamous guard,

  • agreed to tell me his side of the story.

  • It's really an honor to meet you.

  • You're a living, walking piece of psychology history.

  • I'm never recognized in the street or anything like that,

  • although I still get some hate mail.

  • -Are you serious? -Yeah, absolutely.

  • Well, what do you say to them when they react that way?

  • I say, well, there's probably a lot about that

  • that didn't happen quite the way it's been portrayed.

  • Well, Dave, before we go too far,

  • I'd like to watch the footage we have here

  • so we can kind of talk about what we see.

  • [Dave] That's me there, by the way.

  • -[Michael] Look at that look. -[Dave] Mm-hmm.

  • So how did you get involved with a Stanford Prison Experiment?

  • My father was a professor at Stanford,

  • and I was home for summer, looking for a summer job.

  • So I'm looking through the want ads.

  • $15 a day.

  • You know, in 1971 that wasn't bad.

  • The way it was introduced to the guards,

  • the whole concept of this experiment,

  • we were never led to believe

  • that we were part of the experiment.

  • We were led to believe that our job

  • was to get results from the prisoners,

  • that they were the ones the researchers

  • are really studying.

  • The researchers were behind the wall.

  • And we all knew they were filming.

  • And we can often hear the researchers

  • commenting on the action from the other side of the wall.

  • You know, like, "Oh, gosh, did you see that?

  • Here. Make sure you get a close-up of that."

  • Okay? So if they want to show that prison is a bad experience,

  • I'm going to make it bad.

  • But how did you feel doing stuff like that?

  • Didn't you feel bad?

  • I don't know if this is a revelation to you,

  • but 18-year-old boys are not the most sensitive creatures.

  • -Sure. -My agenda was to be

  • the worst guard I could possibly be.

  • -And it's pretty serious. -Mm-hmm.

  • This is my favorite part of all the footage we have

  • -from the experiment. -Mm-hmm.

  • It's you and a prisoner confronting each other

  • after the experiment.

  • I remember the guy saying, "I hate you, man."

  • -Yeah. -"I hate you."

  • Each day I said, well, what can we do to ramp up

  • what we did yesterday?

  • How can we build on that?

  • Why did you want to ramp things up?

  • Two reasons, I think.

  • One was because I really believed

  • I was helping the researchers with some better understanding

  • of human behavior.

  • On the other hand,

  • it was personally interesting to me.

  • You know, I cannot say that I did not enjoy what I was doing.

  • Maybe, you know, having so much power

  • over these poor, defenseless prisoners,

  • you know, maybe you kind of get off on that a little bit.

  • You weren't entirely following a script from a director.

  • Right.

  • But you also felt like

  • Zimbardo wanted something from you.

  • -Yes. -And you gave that to him.

  • I believe I did. I think I decided

  • I was going to do a better job than anybody there

  • of delivering what he wanted.

  • But does that excuse me from what I was doing?

  • Certainly it started out with me playing a role.

  • So the question is, was there a point where I stopped acting

  • and I started living, so to speak?

  • The standard narrative is that Dave Eshelman did what he did

  • because when people are given power,

  • it's easier than we think for abuse to happen.

  • That may be true,

  • but how predisposed to aggression was Dave?

  • I mean, he signed up to something called

  • a "prison study," after all.

  • Also, his feeling that cruelty was encouraged

  • and helped the experiment, may have affected his behavior.

  • What I'd like to see is,

  • in the absence of outside influence,

  • can anonymity, power, and depersonalization alone

  • lead to evil?

  • To answer that question,

  • I'd like to design

  • a demonstration of my own.

  • So I'm meeting with Dr. Jared Bartels

  • of William Jewell College,

  • a psychologist who has written extensively

  • about the Stanford Prison Experiment

  • and how it is taught.

  • I would love to do the Stanford Prison Experiment again.

  • You could probably make it more ethical,

  • but still find the same conclusions.

  • That's my hypothesis.

  • I absolutely think it's worthwhile.

  • It's important. It's interesting.

  • Probably the best approach