Friends discussing Stanford Prison Experiment (40th anniversary, 1971 – 2011)

This year is the 40th anniversary of the Stanford Prison Experiment, an experiment which has become “one of the most notorious experiments in the study of human psychology”. It was supposed to last for two weeks but had to end abruptly just six days later on Aug 20th, 2011 and the experiment continues to shock till this day (via BBC).


I posted a brief Facebook status about the anniversary which lead to the following discussion between me and a friend. Because the discussion ends up quite in depth, with permission from my friend, I am reposting the discussion here.

I’ve also conducted some additional research and added links to a Stanford Magazine article and the 1992 documentary “Quiet Rage – The Stanford Prison Study / Experiment“. While the documentary had its tacky and highly produced moments and Prof. Philip Zimbardo read from a script, there are may insights to be gained from the disturbing raw experiment footage.


Friend: It was an experiment to reveal the true human nature. When some people are given power to do what they wish to do, their real character is manifested. This experiment is definitely a true reflection of real life. For example, when your colleague is promoted to be your boss, who used to be a friend of yours soon shows his/her ugly character!
20 hours ago · Like

Friend: Kempton, there was a movie produced a few years ago based on what had happened in the experiment. I forgot its name but it was a shocking revelation of what some people could become once they were given the authority to control people.
19 hours ago · Like

Friend: The question is, why did some guards become abusive and sadistic while some did not? The answer is, some of them were basically evil in their true self and the situation just provided a trigger for these inner desires to be released!
19 hours ago · Like

Kempton: ‎Friend, you’ve made some very interesting points. For me, I think if we had never been exposed to the ideas & results from this experiments. One of the takeaways for me is that anyone (you me included) could be behaving in an unexpected or even “evil” manner.
19 hours ago · Like

Friend: I can’t disagree with you when you say that we (you and me included) could be behaving in an evil manner. This is especially true when we assume the duty of someone in high authority. But the point is, we KNOW that it is an experiment which just allows us to make some pocket money. We KNOW that after the experiment, we will return to our real ‘us’. If this is the case, I really DON’t UNDERSTAND why those people had to act in such an abusive and sadistic way. How can we explain this, other than that the real nature of these people are really evil?
18 hours ago · Like

Friend: This is the one I talked about:
The Experiment (2010) HD DVD
18 hours ago · Like ·

Kempton: ‎Friend, I think the links is to a movie, BBC actually redone the Stanford Experiment for real in 2002. See this

Reading your last long comment, I wonder you may have misunderstood the conclusion that in both Stanford (1971) and BBC (2002), all participants know it was an experiment. The path of the outcome was changed but the way our fellow unsuspected humans degenerated did not change. And the experiments had to be terminated ahead of schedule.

Again, I think what armed us (you, me and other students of this experiment) is the fact we heard and know a little about the Stanford Experiment and could choose to behave differently if we wish to.

It may be unflattering to us humans but I reiterate, if we hadn’t known about the Stanford Experiment (and can try to choose to act differently), we might felt under the same spelt.

By the way, if it is ok, I think the extended discussion we had here covered about some important insights. I want to repost part or all of our chat here. Is it ok?

Since our chat is displayed publicly on Facebook anyway, is it ok with you if I reshare this and then for your side of the notes, just quoting “a friend” saying. Alternatively, if you would rather not see your words, I can blank out your side of the conversation on my article and post my words alone. But I think it will be nicer to have both sides.

After our long chat here, I thought I want to post more about this 40th anniversary.

P.S. This is a real French documentary and it shows us the dangers is still all around us unless we are armed by awareness. I saw the doc on CBC. Here is a CBC story,

The Experiment (2002) was a documentary series broadcast on BBC television in 2002. It presented the findings of what subsequently became known as The BBC Prison Study (Reicher & Haslam, 2006)
14 hours ago · Like ·

Friend: Of course, it is OK!
6 hours ago · Like

Kempton: Thanks Friend. Will write something up.

Friend: One point I want to clarify. The participants in the Stanford experiment definitely knew why they were joining it. That is, to make some pocket money and contribute to the building of psychology knowledge. If this experiment was conducted among Chinese living in Asia, I don’t think a lot of the wardens would turn sadistic and abusive. Because 山水有相逢, Chinese people are afraid of the possibility of being beaten up once the experiment is over!
a few seconds ago · Like



Stanford Magazine, 2011 July/Aug, “The Menace Within – What happened in the basement of the psych building 40 years ago shocked the world. How do the guards, prisoners and researchers in the Stanford Prison Experiment feel about it now?

Have a watch of the 1992 documentary “Quiet Rage – The Stanford Prison Study / Experiment“.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: