Dear Dr. Zimbardo: Heroes can’t save the situation

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Oct. 25, 2015, 11:59 p.m.

I first heard of Dr. Philip Zimbardo and his Stanford Prison Experiment in my senior year of high school, where it was taught in my introductory Psychology class to illustrate the power that situations have over behavior. Just last week, Dr. Zimbardo published an op-ed in the Daily that read something like the summary of an introductory social psychology chapter mashed together with a self-promotion of the new film, “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” After touching briefly on stories of prison abuse and the author’s own nonprofit organization, the op-ed ends with the magnanimous claim that “by learning the skills, strategies and knowledge of wise and effective social action that channels the private virtue of compassion into this civic virtue of heroism, youth and elders can change their world.”

Social action is something I am all for, make no mistake, and social psychology is a powerful field of study with which to do so – I am earning my degree in it as I type. But Dr. Zimbardo’s optimistic words belie a darker, more complex truth about the power of situations, the role of architects with power and the darkness of one of our most violent social institutions.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is often bundled into a lesson about the power of social roles. Put otherwise average, unassuming people into the roles of prisoner and guard, and observe as the situation causes these everyday people to transform into ruthless monsters and helpless inmates. The situation is to blame, and people are simply washed along helplessly by the power of forces out of their control – unless, of course, they bravely take on the role of everyday hero, through bystander intervention.

This is Zimbardo’s rhetoric, a rhetoric that is familiar to us on campus who have received sexual assault education. It is the responsibility of normal people to save the hapless victim from the faceless wrongdoer – never mind that such a cinematic situation is far from real life.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that the Stanford Prison Experiment hides far more under its seemingly straightforward surface. Take, for example, the fact that Dr. Zimbardo often paints himself as another victim of the situation his study created. In his op-ed, Dr. Zimbardo admits, “In my adopted role of Prison Superintendent, I soon became insensitive to obvious prisoner suffering, failing to limit guard abuses.” The idea that the lead architect himself could fall prey to the limitless power of his own manufactured situation is an effective way for Dr. Zimbardo to simultaneously claim his own innocence and exalt the purportedly groundbreaking nature of his study.

In a 2005 op-ed originally published in the Stanford Daily, the chief consultant for the Stanford Prison Experiment spoke out. Carlo Prescott, a black man who had served 17 years for attempted murder, revealed that “ideas such as bags being placed over the heads of prisoners, inmates being bound together with chains and buckets being used in place of toilets in their cells were all experiences of mine… to allege that all these carefully tested, psychologically solid, upper-middle-class Caucasian ‘guards’ dreamed this up on their own is absurd.” That Dr. Zimbardo purposefully engineered the inhumane efforts of the prison is further confirmed by the in-depth descriptions in his book,  “The Lucifer Effect.” Slacking guards were told that “every guard has to be what we call a ‘tough guard.’ The success of this experiment rides on the behavior of the guards to make it seem as realistic as possible.” No efforts were taken to limit the behavior of abusive guards amid escalating violence and inhumane conditions, and prisoners who spoke out against the clear violation of the prison rules that they had consented to were manipulated and suppressed.

Our first response to all this may be to indict Dr. Zimbardo for creating such a situation – to stamp his forehead with “evil,” dust off our shoulders and call it a day. But there is a bigger point to this column than painting a famous psychologist as a bad person. Dr. Zimbardo called in his op-ed for a “situational analysis,” and so I will take him up on that offer.

In real prisons, it is a badly-kept secret that sexual assault and abuse run rampant. Scandals in which guards force their prisoners into gladiator-style combat are too common for comfort. Supervisors and wardens often purposefully engineer inhumane conditions as forms of torture and crowd control, often with the help of psychologists – look at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. The corruption and privatization of prisons reflects our society’s growing use of prisons as capitalist ventures, or otherwise as holding places for social undesirables, best exemplified by the school-to-prison pipeline.

What Dr. Zimbardo fails to acknowledge is that it is this system – not some watered-down “situation” – that must be indicted. The system of mass incarceration in the United States has been created with helping hands from government, mass media, academia, politics and pop culture; to challenge it, prison abolitionist movements and organizations continue to struggle towards a future where injustice has been dismantled.

But we too need to commit ourselves to that future. The Stanford Prison Experiment does not reveal the power of the situation as much as it shows our complicity as “well-intending” people in perpetuating larger systems. Dr. Zimbardo says we can change the world with more heroes, and while I wish he were right, this simply isn’t true. More heroes is not the answer – but fewer villains is a good start.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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