Stanford Prison Experiment Movie Analysis: The Terrifying Power of Authority Abuse

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The film is a re-enactment of a real psychological experiment called ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’. 12 college-age boys replied to a newspaper ad searching for male students to participate in a psychological study of prison life. It took place in an empty section of Stanford university with offices converted to prison cells. A coin flip determines which are prisoners or prison guards. The experiment takes a horrifying turn when the guards begin abusing and degrading the prisoners severely. A number of prisoners had mental breakdowns in the first couple days, while the others turned into zombies following every word uttered by guards, no matter how crazy their demands were. The experiment was terminated after only 6 days due to the severity of the situation, even though it was supposed to last 2 weeks. I believe watching the Stanford Prison Experiment has both positively and negatively impact me. This was a real experiment, and from some background research I saw real clips from the experiment that were acted out very accurately in the film, even the more disturbing acts were basically identical. What is positive about this film is that I became more aware of several issues.

Most predominantly, how easy it is to abuse authority and power, knowing that no one will question you because of a title and that this is what real prisons are like, if not much worse. Philip Zimbardo, the leading psychologist says “There are some things which obviously we can't do. Because in real prisons there are gang raids and guys get beaten up and get electric shocks and sometimes they even get killed. We can't do that here.” It impacted me negatively because I saw not only how horrible and abusive humans can treat each other when given the option, but also how easy and quickly the guards began acting that way. It made me conscious of why certain people act the way they do; purely because they can. One of the guards said: “I wanted to see just what kind of verbal abuse people can take before they start objecting, before they start lashing back. And it really surprised. It really surprised me that nobody said anything to stop me. ” On the issue of bullying, I see now the effect of standing by while abuse occurs, the prisoners either became hysterical and had mental breakdowns, or they lost their individuality and literally became zombies who followed every order of fake guards in an experiment in order to survive.

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The experience of bullying and especially cyberbullying must be similar, you are constantly verbally, mentally and even physically abused, and it constantly swirls in the mind until it becomes reality. Especially with cyberbullying, social media is basically intertwined with our daily life now, and with constant exposure the victim eventually believe what the bullies are saying about them. Furthermore, I began to see the issue on how prisoners should be treated differently. Rather than being punished, should they be rehabilitated to avoid further damage and make them resent society anymore? Or should they be punished accordingly, with physical, verbal and mental abuse?I despised and felt frustrated with the other guards for standing by, it would have been so easy to stop the disturbing abuse. In the last scene, a guard can be seen sitting on a table looking dismayed as he watched the torture, but for some reason, wasn’t brave enough to take action.

The guard most prominently involved in the abuse reflected at the end of the movie: “I started to abuse people so much. I started to get so profane. And still, people didn't say anything”. I felt confused and resented the bystanders for allowing it to happen. It was an experiment, these titles weren’t real, so why did they feel like they couldn’t stand up to the abuse? I was appalled by what the prisoners became, they became numbers not only to the guards and the other prisoners but to themselves as well. They were puppets, puppeteered by the guards. I felt a lot of sympathy and anger at how they were treated. After reading this text, I learnt how easy it is to let power change a person’s way of thinking and change them into a completely different person. After the experiment, in an exchange between a guard and a prisoner, the guard asks: “Then why do you hate me?” to which the prisoner replies: “Because I know what you can turn into”. The guard in question asking was the most abusive of them all, forcing the prisoners to do extremely degrading acts that made no sense.

A lesson I learned from this is that no matter what your character is, something as simple as a uniform, nightstick and sunglasses, can turn you into a monster. Before the experiment, they were normal, healthy, and reasonably nice men, yet they were completely different people within a measly 24 hours. Simply the illusion of power; a uniform, a nightstick, and a pair of sunglasses, can change people, no matter their character. This idea is seen can be seen in real life in many situations, one being the huge issue of police brutality in the United States. It is a rude awakening, but it is also important to learn how power is abused and how it can be so easily manipulated, ruining lives. A Year 12 student would find this film not necessarily entertaining, but interesting to view especially if they are interested in psychology. It showcases the changes the prisoners occur very well. The way the other one’s actions affect another and it is engrossing to see the resulting effect on the men after the experiment. This includes the interactions between ex-prisoner and ex-guard. I learned so much about human nature and how people react in this sort of situation, in which many are in.

The psychological harm inflicted on the prisoners makes you wonder what exactly happens in real prisons, do people really deserve this kind of degradation and loss of self for years?

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