Fromm...on Zimbardo's Prison Experiment

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The following is an excerpt (pp. 76-90) from...The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (Fawcett Books, 1973) Erich Fromm...concerning Fromm's views of Philip Zimbardo's (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Fromm's critical analysis finds Zimbardo's experiment wanting...flawed on a number of points.

Another experiment is particularly relevant here because it deals directly with the problem of the causes of cruelty. The first report of this experiment was published in a short paper (P. G. Zimbardo, 1972) which is, as the author wrote me, an excerpt from an oral report presented before a Congressional Subcommittee on Prison Reform. Because of that paper’s brevity, Dr. Zimbardo does not consider it a fair basis for a critique of his work; I follow his wish, although regretfully, because there are certain discrepancies between it and the later paper (C. Haney, C. Banks, and P. Zimbardo, in press)(11) which I would have liked to point out. I shall only briefly refer to his first paper in reference to two crucial points: (a) the attitude of the guards, and (b) the central thesis of the authors.

The purpose of the experiment was to study the behavior of normal people under a particular situation, that of playing the roles of prisoners and guards respectively, in a “mock prison.” The general thesis that the authors believe is proved by the experiment is that many, perhaps the majority of people, can be made to do almost anything by the strength of the situation they are put in, regardless of their morals, personal convictions, and values (P. H. G. Zimbardo, 1972); more specifically, that in this experiment the prison situation transformed most of the subjects who played the role of “guards” into brutal sadists and most of those who played the role of prisoners into abject, frightened, and submissive men, some having such severe mental symptoms that they had to be released after a few days. In fact, the reactions of both groups were so intense that the experiment which was to have lasted for two weeks was broken off after six days.

I doubt that the experiment proved this behaviorist thesis and shall set forth the reasons for my doubts. But first I must acquaint the reader with the details of the experiment as described in the second report. Students applied in answer to a newspaper advertisement asking for male volunteers to participate in a psychological study on prison life in return for payment of $15.00 per day. The students who responded...

completed an extensive, questionnaire concerning their family background, physical and mental health history, prior experience and attitudinal propensities with respect to sources of psycopathology (including their involvement in crime). Each respondent who completed the background questionnaire was interviewed by one of the two experimenters. Finally, the 24 subjects who were judged to be most stable (physically and mentally,) most mature, and least involved in anti-social behaviors were selected to participate in the study. On a random basis, half the Ss were assigned the role of “guard,” half were assigned to the role of "prisoner."

The final sample of subjects chosen “was administered a battery of psychological tests on the day prior to the start of the simulation, but to avoid any selective bias on the part of the experimenter-observers, scores were not tabulated until the study was completed.” According to the authors, they had selected a sample of individuals who did not deviate from the normal range of the population, and who showed no sadistic or masochistic predisposition.

The “prison” was constructed in a 35-foot section of a basement corridor in the psychology building at Stanford University. All the subjects were told that...

they would be assigned either the guard or the prisoner role on a completely random basis and all had voluntarily agreed to play either role for $15.00 per day for up to two weeks. They signed a contract guaranteeing a minimally adequate diet, clothing, housing and medical care as well as the financial remuneration in return for their stated “intention” of serving in the assigned role for the duration of the study. It was made explicit in the contract that those assigned to be prisoners should expect to be under surveillance (had little or no privacy) and to have some of their basic civil rights suspended during their imprisonment, excluding physical abuse. They were given no other information about what to expect nor instructions about behavior appropriate for a prisoner role. Those actually assigned to this treatment were informed by phone to be available at their place of residence on a given Sunday when we would start the experiment.

The subjects assigned to be guards attended a meeting with the “Warden” (an undergraduate research assistant) and the “Superintendent” of the prison (the principal investigator). They were told that their task was to “maintain the reasonable degree of order in the prison necessary for its effective functioning.”

It is important to mention what the authors understand by “prison.” They do not use the word in its generic sense as a place of internment for law offenders, but in a specific sense portraying the conditions existing in certain American prisons.

Our Intention was not to create a literal simulation of an American prison, but rather a functional representation of one. For ethical, moral and pragmatic reasons we could not detain our subjects for extended or indefinite periods of time, we could not exercise the threat and promise of severe physical punishment, we could not allow homosexual or racist practices to flourish, nor could we duplicate certain other specific aspects of prison life. Nevertheless, we believed that we could create a situation with sufficient mundane realism to allow ,the role-playing participation to go beyond the superficial demands of their assignment into the deep structure of the characters they represented. To do so, we established functional equivalents for the activities and experiences of actual prison life which were expected to produce qualitatively similar psychological reactions in our subjects—feelings of power and powerlessness, of control and oppression, of satisfaction and frustration, of arbitrary rule and resistance to authority, of status and anonymity, of machismo and emasculation.

As the reader will see presently from the description of the methods used in the prison, this description is considerable understatement of the treatment employed in the experiment, which is only vaguely hinted at in the last words. The actual methods were those of severe and systematic humiliation and degradation, not only because of the behavior of the guards, but through the prison rules arranged by the experimenters.

By the use of the term “prison” it is implied that at least all prisons in the United States and in fact in any other country are of this type. This implication ignores the fact that there are others, such as some Federal prisons in the United States and their equivalent abroad, which are not evil to the degree the authors introduced into their mock prison.

How were the “prisoners” treated? They had been told to keep themselves ready for the beginning of the experiment.

With the cooperation of the Palo Alto City Police Department all of the subjects assigned to the prisoner treatment were unexpectedly “arrested” at their residences. A police officer charged them with suspicion of burglary or armed robbery, advised them of their legal rights, handcuffed them, thoroughly searched them (often as curious neighbors looked on) and carried them off to the police station in the rear of a police car. At the station they went through the standard routines of being fingerprinted, having an identification file prepared and then being placed in a detention cell. Each prisoner was blindfolded and subsequently driven by one of the experimenters and a subject-guard to our mock prison. Throughout the entire arrest procedure, the police officers involved maintained a formal, serious attitude, avoiding answering any questions of clarification as to the relation of this “arrest” to the mock prison study. Upon arrival at our experimental prison, each prisoner was stripped, sprayed with a delousing preparation ( a deodorant spray) and made to stand alone naked for a while in the cell yard. After being given the uniform described previously and having an I.D. picture taken (“mug shot”), the prisoner was put in his cell and ordered to remain silent.

Since “arrests” were carried out by the real police (one wonders about the legality of their participation in this procedure), as far as the subjects knew these were real charges, especially since the officers did not answer questions about the connection between the arrest and the experiment. What were the subjects to think? How were they to know that the “arrest” was no arrest; that the police had lent themselves to making these false accusations and to use force just to give more color to the experiment?

The uniforms of the “prisoners” were peculiar. They consisted of

loosely fitting muslin smocks with an identification number in front and back. No underclothes were worn beneath these “dresses.” A light chain and lock were placed around one ankle. On their feet they wore rubber sandals and their hair was covered with a nylon stocking made into a cap. The prisoners’ uniforms were designed not only to deindividuate the prisoners but to be humiliating and serve as symbols of their dependence and subservience. The ankle chain was a constant reminder (even during their sleep when it hit the other ankle) of the oppressiyeness of the environment. The stocking cap removed any distinctiveness associated with hair length, color or style (as does shaving of heads in some “real” prisons and the military). The ill-fitting uniforms made the prisoners feel awkward in their movements; since, these dresses were worn without undergarments, the uniform forced them to assume unfamiliar postures, more like those of a woman than a man—another part of the emasculating process of becoming a prisoner.

What were the reactions of the prisoners and the guards to this situation during the six days of the experiment?

The most dramatic evidence of the impact of this situation upon the participants was seen in the gross reactions of five prisoners who bad to be released because of extreme emotional depression, crying, rage and acute anxiety. The pattern of symptoms was quite similar in four of the subjects and began as early as the second day of imprisonment. The fifth subject was released after being treated for a psychosomatic rash which covered portions of his body. Of the remaining prisoners, only two said they were not willing to forfeit the money they had earned in return for being “paroled.” When the experiment was terminated prematurely after only six days, all the remaining prisoners were delighted by their unexpected good fortune....

While the response of the prisoners is rather uniform and only different in degree, the response of the guards offers a more complex picture:

In contrast most of the guards teemed to be distressed by the decision to stop the experiment and it appeared to us that they had become sufficiently involved in their roles so that they now enjoyed the extreme control and power which they exercised and were reluctant to give it up.

The authors describe the attitude of the “guards”:

None of the guards ever failed to come to work on time for their shift, and indeed, on several occasions guards remained on duty voluntarily and uncomplaining for extra hours—without additional pay. The extremely pathological reactions which emerged in both groups of subjects testify to the power of the social forces operating, but still there were individual differences seen in styles of coping with this novel experience and in degrees of successful adaptation to it. Half the prisoners did endure the oppressive atmosphere, and not all the guards resorted to hostility. Some guards were tough but fair (“played by the rules”), some went far beyond their roles to engage in creative cruelty and harassment, while a few were passive and rarely instigated any coercive control over the prisoners.

Regrettably we are not given any more precise information than “some,” “some,” “a few.” This seems to be an unnecessary lack of precision when it should have been very easy to mention the exact numbers. This is all the more surprising since in the earlier communication in Trans-Action somewhat more precise and substantially different statements were made. The percentage of actively sadistic guards, “quite inventive in their techniques of breaking the spirit of the prisoners,” is estimated there as being about one third. The rest are divided among the two other categories which are described, respectively, as (1) being “tough but fair” or (2) “good guards from the prisoner’s point of view since they did them small favors and were friendly”; this is a very different characterization from that of “being passive and rarely instigating coercive control,” as expressed in the later report.

Such descriptions indicate a certain lack of precision in the formulation of the data, which is all the more regrettable when it occurs in connection with the crucial thesis of the experiment. The authors believe it proves that the situation alone can within a few days transform normal people into abject, submissive individuals or into ruthless sadists. It seems to me that the experiment proves, if anything, rather the contrary. If in spite of the whole spirit of this mock prison which, according to the concept of the experiment was meant to be degrading and humiliating (obviously the guards must have caught on to this immediately), two thirds, of the guards did not commit sadistic acts for personal “kicks,” the experiment seems rather to prove that one can not transform people so easily into sadists by providing them with the proper situation.

The difference between behavior and character matters very much in this context. It is one thing to behave according to sadistic rules And another thing to want to be and to enjoy being cruel to people. The failure to make this distinction deprives this experiment of much of its value, as it also marred Milgram’s experiment.

This distinction is also relevant for the other side of the thesis, namely that the battery of tests had shown that there was no predisposition among the subjects for sadistic or masochistic behavior, that is to say, that the tests showed no sadistic or masochistic character traits. As far as psychologists are concerned, to whom manifest behavior is the main datum, this conclusion may be quite correct. However, on the basis of psychoanalytic experience it is not very convincing. Character traits are often entirely unconscious and, furthermore, cannot be discovered by conventional psychological teats; as far as projective tests are concerned, such as the T.A.T. or the Rorschach, only investigators with considerable experience in the study of unconscious processes will discover much unconscious material.

The data on the "guards" are open to question for still another reason. These subjects were selected precisely because they represented more or less average, normal men, and they were found to be without sadistic predispositions. This result contradicts empirical evidence which shows that the percentage of unconscious sadists in an average population is not zero. Some studies (B. Frowns, 1936; B. Frowns and M. Maccoby, 1970) have shown this, and a skilled observer can detect it without the use of questionnaires or tests. But whatever the percentage of sadistic characters in a normal population may be, the complete absence of this category does not speak well for the aptness of the tests used with regard to this problem.

Some of the puzzling results of the experiment are probably to be explained by another factor. The authors state that the subjects had difficulty in distinguishing reality from the role they were playing, and assume this to be a result of the situation; this is indeed true, but the experimenters built this result into the experiment. In the first place the “prisoners” were confused by several circumstances. The conditions they were told and under which they entered into the contract were drastically different from those they found. They could not possibly have expected to find themselves in a degrading and humiliating atmosphere. More important for the creation of the confusion is the cooperation of the police. Since it is most unusual for police authorities to lend themselves to such an experimental game, it was very difficult for the prisoners to appreciate the difference between reality and role-playing. The report shows that they did not even know whether their arrest had anything to do with the experiment, and the officers refused to answer their questions about this connection. Would not any average person be confused and enter the experiment with a sense of puzzlement, of having been tricked, and of helplessness?

Why did they not quit immediately, or after one or two days? The authors fail to give us a clear picture of what the “prisoners” were told about the conditions for being released from the mock prison. At least I did not find any mention of their having ever been told that they had the right to quit if they found a continued stay intolerable. In fact, when some tried to break out the guards prevented them by force. It seems that they were given the impression that only the parole board could give them permission to leave. Yet the authors say:

One of the most remarkable incidents of the study occurred during a parole board hearing when each of five prisoners eligible for parole was asked by the senior author whether he would be willing to forfeit all the money earned as a prisoner if he were to be paroled (released from the study). Three of the five prisoners said, “yes,” they would be willing to do this. Notice that the original incentive for participating in the study had been the promise of money, and they were, after only four days, prepared to give this up completely. And, more surprisingly, when told that this possibility would have to be discussed with the members of the staff before a decision could bowed., each prisoner got up quietly and was escorted by a guard back to his cell. If they regarded themselves simply as “subjects” participating in an experiment for money, there was no longer any incentive to remain in the study and they could have easily escaped this situation which had so clearly become aversive for them by quitting. Yet, so powerful was the control which the situation had come to have over them, so much a reality had this simulated environment become, that they were unable to see that their original and singular motive for remaining no longer obtained, and they returned to their cells to await a “parole” decision by their captors.

Could they have escaped the situation so easily? Why were they not told in this meeting: “Those of you who want to quit are free to leave immediately, they will only forfeit the money.” If they had still stayed on after this announcement, indeed the authors’ statement about their docility would have been justified. But by saying the “possibility would have to be discussed with the members of the staff before a decision could be made” they were given the typical bureaucratic buck-passing answer; it implied that the prisoners had no right to leave.

Did the prisoners really “know” that all this was an experiment? It depends on what “knowing” means here and what the effects are on the prisoners’ thinking processes if they are intentionally confused from the very beginning and do not know any longer what is what and who is who.


11 Except as otherwise noted, the following quotations are from the joint paper, the manuscript of which Dr. Zimbardo kindly sent me.