RACHEL MACNAIR -- Thoughts on The Experimenter and Stanford Prison Experiment

I bring to your attention two movies that are worth seeing for peace psychologists and worth using for classes for those of us who teach --  “The Experimenter” (trailer) and "The Stanford Prison Experiment" (trailer).

Seeing “The Experimenter” (trailer) advertised in the APA Monitor, I found it online for rent under Google at YouTube. It’s about Stanley Milgram, done as a dramatization with frequent asides where the actor turns to the audience to explain things. It’s mainly the electroshock destructive-obedience experiments, of course, though includes others of his innovations. It includes a lot of the controversy that surrounded the electroshock experiments, so it’s good at fostering discussion about thinking these things through. 

One thing that was left out that peace psychology teachers would want to add instruction on is the experiments that showed what increased non-compliance with the demands of destructive authority. 

One was that when instead of one man in a white lab coat, they had two, so there were two authorities, and at one point they had them argue with each other. Most people stopped complying right away, and with only one or two more levels, all people stopped. Real-world applications include dictatorships under which the church, the imams, or the Buddhist monks argue with the dictator, which has been commonly seen historically. 

Another was when they set up across a large room another set-up that appeared to be the same experiment with different people, and in that set-up clearly viewed, the “teacher” did rebel and refused to go further. With this example of non-conformity in front of them, only 10% continued to the top level, where normal circumstances had the figure at 65%. Still depressing that a tenth did, but a heck of a lot better. And of course the real-world application is to help explain why people who spend years acquiescing to destructive authorities stop when there’s a model they can see of people not doing so. 

The other movie is on the Stanford Prison Experiment (trailer), and has that title; I also rented that live-streamed online to see over the holiday break. It just came out in 2015. It’s a fairly straightforward and mainly accurate dramatization of the experiment, and they certainly got the right actor to play Phil Zimbardo, a definite resemblance. 

And I did feel the need after my son and I watched both of these movies to point out that such brutality in experiments is no longer allowed due to ethics guidelines that were put in place later, these two experiments being a major part of bringing those guidelines about. There was cruelty involved, but these two are the best lab studies of cruelty and helping to understand why it happens. 

They’ve always been part of intro to peace psych and I think no one can understand the field without understanding them. These two movies give more of a real-world feeling of what really happened, better than any dry write-up could ever do, and so will add quality to the discussion.