Coincidentally (?), films featuring two of the most famous psychology experiments were released quite close together this past year. Both experiments addressed somewhat similar questions regarding obedience and the social roles that we’re willing to enact. Both are as infamous for the ethical questions they raise about research as they are famous for the insights they reveal about human nature.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is based on the experiment from 1974 by Philip Zimbardo (and praised as accurate, if understated!, by Zimbardo himself). In the basement of an off-term building at Stanford, a simulated prison was created and subjects were recruited to play the guards and the prisoners. Those playing prisoners were “arrested” at their homes and immediately subjected to the humiliations and dehumanizing treatment deemed typical of the prison system. Things go downhill from there and the two weeks the experiment is meant to run was mercifully cut short.
The film does a great job of helping you feel the abusive and evil effects of being placed into such roles, especially when the guards were encouraged to be “tough” and to use methods common in some prisons at the time (such as simple buckets instead of toilets and the use of “the hole” for solitary confinement). They also help you see the way the experimenters were drawn into playing their own abusive roles as overseers to protect the outcome of their project. I’ve taught this experiment (and the Milgram one) for years and was surprised at the emotional impact of seeing the film versus simply “hearing the facts” of what happened.
Experimenter started out, in my opinion, even better as they introduce the experiment which made Stanley Milgram famous. Participants were recruited to play the role of “teachers” who would use electric shocks to punish incorrect answers. Everyone believed that most people would stop at relatively low voltages when the cries of the “learner” (actually an actor playing a part) grew more intense. The results surprised everyone.
The first half of the movie is made beautifully, artfully and effectively but then wanders off into the lacklustre future of Milgram’s life and career after the experiment. Was the point that this somewhat aimless wandering was punishment for his showing us what we did not want to see about human nature? In any case, the second half of the movie is indeed an aimless wandering and quite a disappointment. The filmmaker’s experiments on its viewers, in my opinion, ran out of steam. The only good news is that I’ll only need to show the first half of the film to future students in my Research Methods class.
Both of these experiments (especially Zimbardo’s) have received much attention in the years since Abu Ghraib, as a culture realised that it had not bothered to learn the crucial lessons that social psychology has tried to teach it about human nature and institutional evil. But these movies both serve as great reminders of those lessons which we are still so reluctant to really attention to. The lessons were gained at a cost. Personally, in the case of the Stanford experiment, I don’t think the emotional abuse of the participants was worth what was learned (and watching the film drove this point home); in Milgram’s case, I do. In any case, this is real human nature revealed, and we need to pay attention! What would you do in their shoes? How badly might you treat people if those in authority told you that you must mistreat people, and all the evidence is that others are expecting you too. If you think too highly of yourself, you’re not really listening. Both films deserve to be seen, especially by those with interests in psychology – the Stanford movie gets ***+ and Experimenter, thanks to a poor second half, only gets ***.