What’s fascinating is that most guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment remained hesitant to apply ‘tough’ tactics at all, even under mounting pressure. Two-thirds refused to take part in the sadistic games. One-third treated the prisoners with kindness, to Zimbardo and his team’s frustration. One of the guards resigned the Sunday before the experiment started, saying he couldn’t go along with the instructions. In Why Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment Isn’t in My Textbook, there is a quotation, from John Mark, who had been one of the guards in Zimbardo's "experiment." It's from the July/Aug, 2011 issue of the Stanford Alumni magazine:
"During the day shift, when I worked, no one did anything that was beyond what you'd expect in a situation like that. But Zimbardo went out of his way to create tension. Things like forced sleep deprivation — he was really pushing the envelope. I just didn't like the whole idea of constantly disturbing people and asking them to recite their prisoner numbers in a count. I certainly didn't like when they put a guy in solitary confinement.
"At that time of my life, I was getting high, all day every day. I got high before I went to the experiment; I got high on my breaks and lunch. I got high afterwards. I brought joints with me, and every day I wanted to give them to the prisoners. I looked at their faces and saw how they were getting dispirited and I felt sorry for them.
"I didn't think it was ever meant to go the full two weeks. I think Zimbardo wanted to create a dramatic crescendo, and then end it as quickly as possible. I felt that throughout the experiment, he knew what he wanted and then tried to shape the experiment — by how it was constructed, and how it played out — to fit the conclusion that he had already worked out. He wanted to be able to say that college students, people from middle-class backgrounds — people will turn on each other just because they're given a role and given power.
"Based on my experience, and what I saw and what I felt, I think that was a real stretch. I don't think the actual events match up with the bold headline. I never did, and I haven't changed my opinion."
The big problem with the Stanford Prison Experiment had always been that it was so unethical that no one dared to replicate it and so Zimbardo had for decades been the final authority on the subject. But then, two British psychologists designed an experiment for the BBC to answer the question: what happens to ordinary people when they don a uniform and step inside a prison? Bregman says that it was an effort to sit through the resulting 4 hr. program because nothing much happened. The main difference from Zimbardo's experiment was that the psychologists didn’t tell the guards what to do. All they did was observe.
Things were just getting started when one guard announced he didn’t feel suited to the role of guard: ‘I’d rather be a prisoner, honestly …’ On day two, another suggested sharing the guards’ food with the prisoners to boost morale. Then on day four, when it looked like some sparks might fly, a guard advised a prisoner: ‘If we can get to the end of this, we can go down the pub and have a drink.’ Another guard chimed in, ‘Let’s discuss this like human beings.’ Or, as the Sunday Herald summed it up, ‘What happens when you put good men in an evil place and film it for telly? Erm, not that much actually.’
From a scientific perspective, the experiment was a resounding success. Haslam and Reicher (the psychologists who conducted the study) published more than ten articles about their results in prestigious academic journals. But the BBC Prison Study has since faded into obscurity, while people still talk about the Stanford Prison Experiment. This exposes a harsh truth: if a study shows the negative side of human character, it will receive wide publicity; if it shows the good side, it will be ignored.
The Stanford Prison Experiment attempts to show what today’s social psychologists call situationism: the idea that people’s behavior is determined largely by what’s happening around them. If you put people in certain situations, they are more likely to be racist or sexist, or they may lie or cheat. But continued to its logical extreme, situationism, according to one psychologist, “has an exonerating effect”. “In the minds of a lot of people, it tends to excuse the bad behavior … it’s not the person’s fault for doing the bad thing, it’s the situation they were put in.”