Critiquing Critique: The Stanford Prison Experiment


The Stanford Prison Experiment –


What happens when you put 24 students in a prison setting, randomly assigning half to take up the role of prison guard and the other half the role of prisoner? You get Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment.


What happens when an opinion maker judges a prison experiment without having stepped a foot inside a prison himself? You get a critical article based on theoretical judgement rather than experience.




A Dutch investigative news website published an article about the Stanford Prison Experiment a while ago. For the Dutch-speakers, have a read before I offer you my view. For the non-Dutch readers, why not give it a go before I explain to you how the article is based on wrong assumptions and false reasoning to drawn its theoretical conclusion.

De echte les van het beruchte Stanford Prison Experiment: vertrouwen is sterker dan haat
 by Rutger Bregman, De Correspondent


The experiment in action







In short, the writer questions Zimbardo’s conclusion of the prison experiment, that people are inherently evil and need just a little push to act that way. However, he supports his critique by arguing Zimbardo created biased circumstances and the subjected were merely behaving as was expected from them.

The writer says to be shocked when he discovered the students in the role of prison guards got instructions, that the horrendous acts were not intrinsic but instructed. Zimbardo has stated many times the students did not receive any form of training on how to behave, however he confirms a preparation meeting was arranged during which the students were told what was expected from them in their role of prison guard.

“I had to read this sections a few times over – was I really reading this? Here he was, the so-called independent researcher, already on the Saturday before the experiment! Zimbardo delivered crystal clear instructions to the prison guards. They hadn’t come up with the measures themselves of handing out numbers, wearing sunglasses and playing those sadistic games. They were told to.”

– Rutger Bregman in his article, translated from Dutch

If Zimbardo would deny giving instructions when in fact he did, this would indeed limit the transparency of the research let alone question the credibility of the researcher himself. Nonetheless, explaining the students what is expected from them in their assigned role, does not necessarily undermine the conclusions of the experiment. In my opinion, it even aids the validity of the study.

Prison guard wearing sun glasses during the experiment –


Actual prison guards to not start their daily activities without instructions from their superiors. The way they go about their job is largely determined by the prison management and their authority, the Ministry of Justice. The former decides on the role and functioning of the institutions and by that sets the boundaries within the prison work needs to be fulfilled. As you can read in a previous blog post, it was the Dutch Ministry that decided on a policy of “sober punishment” with less working hours and increasing confinement to shared cells.

It is also the Ministry and/or the management, hopefully along the guidelines provided by research and practice, that decides on the role of the guards and the available materials: the uniforms (and sun glasses),  the contact hours and closeness between guards and inmates (first name basis or number basis) and the system of punishment (from limiting privileges to physical punishment). It isn’t the prison guards who decide to wear the uniform they wear or treat the prisoners they way they treat them, this is all ordered to them by their authority.

The second argument that a British Big-Brother style remake of the experiment tuned into a bridge club, receives them same counterargument: a prison needs a director and the guards need expectation to which they feel obliged to conform.

Zimbardo (left) talking to his colleagues during the experiment –

Nonetheless, I do not disagree on the writer’s conclusion: I believe people not to be intrinsically evil, but dispositioned by genes that from their creation might direct them to certain behaviors that could either be favoured or frowned upon by society. Their conduct is not set in stone, their environment has a large influence on strengthening, and exposing certain traits. However, it is not a push that shoves them over an edge of good versus evil, it is a more complex combination of genes, exposure and learning.

Concluding in a theory of intrinsic evilness I do not agree with, the Stanford Prison Experiment still shows us a very interesting and above all reasonably valid research. Replications following the line of strict instructions and an authoritative director should be made to assess the conclusion’s reliability.


One thought on “Critiquing Critique: The Stanford Prison Experiment

  1. Thanks for this—good rebuttal, also I’d be fascinated to see this experiment repeated under varying conditions and constellations.

    Also an interesting interview with Zimbardo himself:

    relevant passage:
    “Seventy-five college students answered an ad in the Palo Alto newspaper. We gave them a battery of personality tests and then randomly assigned *two dozen who were the most psychologically healthy* to either play the role of prisoner or guard.”

    * not sure if/how that corrects for the phrasing of the newspaper ad.


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