“The Stanford Prison Experiment” movie: What happened in the film that didn’t happen in real life?

The new feature film “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is “about 90 percent accurate,” said Stanford University psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, at a showing of the film today as part of APA’s Film Festival.

At the screening, Zimbardo — who conducted the now-famous experiment in 1971 to simulate the conditions of prison and examine the power of social situations over individual personality — shared some of the differences between what really happened in the basement of the Stanford psychology building and what’s depicted in the film.

Among the greatest differences is that the movie shows one student being “arrested” by Palo Alto police at his home to begin the study, omitting the fact that all nine students assigned as prisoners were first taken to the Palo Alto police department after their arrests. There, they were booked, fingerprinted and held in a cell for several hours before they were taken to the university.

Other differences include:

• The Stanford professor who encounters Zimbardo as he is sitting outside the prisoners’ cells one night and asks, “What is the independent variable in your study? This is an experiment, right, not just a simulation?” is played by an older actor in the movie. In reality, the person who posed that question was Zimbardo’s same-age Stanford colleague and his Yale graduate school roommate – well-known experimental psychologist Gordon Bower, PhD.

• Zimbardo was never involved in the “parole hearings” held for prisoners as he is in the movie. Instead, some secretaries ran those meetings along with Carlo Prescott (who is featured in the film) — a man Zimbardo brought in to help with the experiment because he had recently been released from prison after serving 17 years.

• In the real study, there was less frequent physical abuse by the guards, Zimbardo noted. “The only physical abuse was during the rebellion when the guards broke in and the prisoners started attacking them,” he said.

Zimbardo told attendees that the experiment eventually led him to shift his area of research to shyness, which he studied for the next 20 years. “One of the messages of the study is the extent to which all prisons are prisons of the mind,” he said. “Shyness is a self-imposed psychological prison.”

He also said that he moved away from “creating evil” to “inspiring heroism” by launching the Heroic Imagination Project, a nonprofit organization that teaches children about heroism and promotes the use of social science research to teach people ways to resist bullying and oppression.

Zimbardo is now organizing a screening of “The Stanford Prison Experiment” for President Obama at the While House since the president recently made the first visit by a sitting president to a federal prison and is calling for prison reform.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is showing in theatres in limited release. Zimbardo will be answering attendees’ questions about the film online over the next few days. Email questions to mel@heroicimaginationproject.org.

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