Dr. Philip Zimbardo attends the ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ premiere during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival (Photo by Chelsea Lauren - Getty Images)
Ethics and morality

Book review - Tyranny and the tyrant

Zimbardo's 'The Lucifer Effect' reviewed.

18 August 2007

THE driving force for Philip Zimbardo to write The Lucifer Effect was ‘the need to better understand the how and why of the physical and psychological abuses perpetrated on prisoners by American Military Police at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq’ (p.18). Zimbardo was not alone in seeing something of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) in the behaviour of guards, so he started to present an explanation of this abuse based on the study he was director of over 35 ago years. The questions for the reader are whether there is anything new to learn about the SPE after 30 years and whether it can tell us anything about Abu Ghraib.

The SPE is one of the most cited studies in social psychology. It is included in A-level courses, and to his credit Zimbardo still lectures to student audiences on the topic and responds to their e-mails through his website. Like Milgram’s study on obedience (also re-examined in this book) it is held up to provide a picture of how people can behave under duress. The message that Zimbardo draws from it repeatedly is that there are no bad apples, only bad barrels. He argues that in the SPE ordinary members of the public found themselves in a far from ordinary situation and behaved in cruel and brutal ways to other people. It could have been you, says Zimbardo. The factors that facilitated this, according to Zimbardo, included the uniforms that the participants wore and the roles they were assigned.

After 35 years is there anything new to learn about this study? Well, remarkably there is. I had not been aware before how much Zimbardo intervened in this study. In his reflection on the events he sees himself as a bystander in his role as Prison Superintendent and he holds his hands up to being guilty of ‘an evil of inaction’, but that doesn’t do justice to his contribution. I think one of the strong messages that comes out of this text is that it is not the roles that created the abusive behaviour in the guards but the manipulation of the Machiavellian superintendent. For example, in his orientation speech to the guards he says of the prisoners: ‘They will have no freedom of action. They will be able to do nothing and say nothing we don’t permit. We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways… We have total power in the situation. They have none.’ Notice the use of pronouns here. Zimbardo puts himself with the guards and gives clear instructions that ‘we’ are going to go outside normal patterns of social behaviour to create a hostile situation for the prisoners. It is not, as Zimbardo suggests, the guards who wrote their own scripts on the blank canvass of the SPE, but Zimbardo who creates the script of terror, and this is important when we come to his analysis of Abu Ghraib.

The orientation speech is one of many interventions by Zimbardo during the six-day study. When one of the prisoners asks to be released, he manipulates an angry confrontation with an ex-con and then tries to bargain with the prisoner with an offer of better treatment in return for being a spy in the camp. When parents and friends turn up for a visit, he misleads them about the state of the prison and the state of the prisoners. On the basis of a perceived threat to the prison, he removes all the prisoners (handcuffed and with bags over their heads) to avoid a jailbreak attempt that never occurs. He introduces a new prisoner who is an informant. He reads the prisoners’ mail and responds to it. These are the actions of a playwright not an actor.

The study comes to an end when, according to Zimbardo, he comes to his senses and realises the distress he has created. A less charitable reading would suggest that in the final 12 hours of the study, Zimbardo is challenged by his girlfriend who is appalled at what is going on in the prison and is then forced to allow a real-life lawyer into the prison to interview the prisoners at the request of one of the parents. Love and fear of legal action are powerful motivators.

One of the surprising things about the SPE is how well-known and cited it is while the scientific community knows so little about it. There are no accounts of it in a refereed psychology journal. The original report (Haney et al., 1973) appears in Naval Research Review, and the research was funded by the Office of Naval Research. Access to the data has been controlled and marketed by Zimbardo, and reinterpretation and further work opposed and challenged.

Take for example Zimbardo’s response to the BBC Prison Study (Reicher & Haslam, 2006). Unlike Zimbardo’s study, this experiment was developed from theory, rigorously designed with planned experimental manipulations. It has been presented for peer review, and accepted, in several of the most prestigious journals. It collected data on a wide range of cognitive, social and physiological variables and most crucially put in place exemplary ethical safeguards. Zimbardo’s response to this has been dismissive rather than scholarly.

In this text he attempts to dismiss the BBC Prison Study by referring to it as a pseudo-experiment (ironic given his accounts of the SPE) and using only one reference to it from a news report in The Daily Telegraph. I find it disappointing that such as eminent psychologist, whose work I have admired should behave in such a petty way towards colleagues and with such contempt towards scientific debate.

With regard to the design of the SPE, it appears to have been largely made up as they went along as the psychologists struggled to deal with a situation that quickly spun out of control. Given the level of detail in this book, including who ate what and when (e.g. p.495), it is surprising what is missing. There is virtually no psychological data on the prisoners and guards other than the selected recollections of the participants.

Confusingly, it is not clear made which parts of dialogue are accurate representations of what was said and which parts are made up by Zimbardo as some sort of screenplay. At one point he writes that some of the dialogue ‘is based not on documented recordings of our transactions at that time but rather on my subsequent recall blended with the intention of creating a reasonable story line’.

There is no doubt that many readers find much to reflect on in his description of the SPE and we are forced to confront how we might behave in similar circumstances. This is the power of the SPE. Zimbardo reflects on this and suggests that when we look at Abu Ghraib we should see not the actions of the guards but the actions of the system that created them. He describes how in his role as expert witness for one of the guards, Staff Sergeant Ivan ‘Chip’ Frederick, he made this point to the military court though with little success.

A different interpretation of Abu Ghraib, however, does not see the guards as victims of the US government (Zimbardo appears to point the blame towards the White House) but as the agents of their much closer Machiavellian masters. In this reading of events the uncomfortable truth for us as psychologists is that the guards were responding to what they perceived to be the requests of PsyOps units (Psychological Operations). One of those charged, Private Lynndie England, who featured prominently in the first batch of photographs and was subsequently jailed, insisted she was acting on orders from ‘persons in my chain of command’. ‘I was instructed by persons in higher rank to “stand there, hold this leash, look at the camera”, and they took pictures for PsyOps’ (see, for example, Ronson, 2005).

The role of psychologists in interrogations of military prisoners has rightly created an ethical storm in the US. When the APA tried to deal with the ethical issue of whether to ban the involvement of psychologists with interrogations and torture they turned to a task force of 10 experts. Remarkably, it is reported that six of these experts had military training and at least four of whom had worked at Guantánamo Bay or Abu Ghraib (Soldz, 2007). The key point that challenges Zimbardo’s argument is that behind the scenes in these military prisons were psychologists feeding the guards ideas on how to deal with the prisoners. This does seem to have parallels with SPE and the reader might detect a direct road from the SPE to Abu Ghraib.

It would not be fair to portray Zimbardo as an architect of military interrogation techniques and he has consistently spoken out against abuse in prisons and most recently against the APA’s position on the role of psychologists in military interrogations. In the sections on Abu Ghraib he writes passionately about the abuses committed by US forces and he makes a damning case against the role of the Bush administration. It is, however, fair to suggest a certain naivety in his analysis. For example, he writes of Abu Ghraib: ‘It seemed inconceivable that American soldiers were tormenting, humiliating, and torturing their captives.’  To me it is this remark that seems inconceivable, as does the following comment to the Times Higher Education Supplement: ‘The military told me they used the SPE tapes to train people not to behave like our guards. I used to quote that as a good outcome of the research. Now I know they also used it to train interrogators to break people. I had no idea they were doing that’ (Gold, 2007). How could he not know or at least suspect this? Why did he think the US Navy was so keen to fund his research? And why does he still engage in research projects funded by the US military (for example see www.cipert.org)?

If we come back to the starting point for this review, then in answer to the question about Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo opens an interesting debate but misses some of the main players, namely the psychologists involved in developing the interrogation techniques used at Guantánamo Bay and brought over to Iraq. If the reader is interested in a fuller debate of the involvement of psychologists in the War on Terror, they should look to Harper (2007). In answer to the question of whether there is anything more to learn about the SPE the answer is yes. And what we learn is that 35 years ago in the basement of the Stanford University psychology department, a psychology professor became a tyrant and created a scene of tyranny.

- Phil Banyard is an Associate Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University. E-mail: [email protected].


Gold, K. (2007, 11 May) The devil inside us all. Times Higher Education Supplement.
Haney, C., Banks, W.C. & Zimbardo, P.G. (1973). A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Review, 30, 4–17.
Harper, D. (2007). The complicity of psychology in the security state. In R. Roberts (Ed.) Just war: Psychology and terrorism (pp.15–45). Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.
Reicher, S. & Haslam, S.A. (2006). Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 1–40.
Ronson, J. (2005). The men who stare at goats. London: Simon & Schuster.
Soldz, S. (2007). A profession struggles to save its soul. Psychoanalytic Activist. Division of Psychoanalysis, APA.