What the Stanford Prison Experiment tells us about rape culture in elite American institutions.


Over 40 years ago there was a classic, but infamous, study on the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The research was conducted at Stanford; now infamous for the recent Brock Turner rape case. The study was led by Professor Philip Zimbardo and used Stanford students.

There is a movie about the experiment which has just been released, but I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t comment on it here.

The study is infamous because of how quickly the Stanford students adapted to the roles of prisoner and prison guard, including using psychological harassment and psychological torture. This included Zimbardo in his role as superintendent letting the abuse happen (essentially an active bystander). The study had to be stopped after six days because of this.

This study is much critiqued; particularly in terms of its participant recruitment, its methodological approach and its ethics. It would be almost impossible to replicate the same study nowadays, though there have been similar studies. While they tend to cast doubt on the generality of Zimbardo’s results, they don’t actually disprove the results themselves.

Similarly – although the study is critiqued as noted above – it’s a set text across a range of undergraduate disciplines. It may not tell us a lot about how general populations respond to extreme peer pressure, but it does illustrate one particular population very well. Which may explain why so many academics were at odds with its implications.

It tells us about male Stanford academics and male Stanford students at that time. How they responded to peer pressure concerning psychological violence and cruelty.

It illustrates that male students and academics at a privileged academic institution, presumably from privileged backgrounds, found it remarkably easy to transition into non-consensual sado-masochistic roles. There has been a concerted effort since the study to imply that the recruited students were particularly prone to sado-masochism. I think that quite misses the point; the study only ceased when a graduate female student objected to it continuing.

Perhaps a better question to have asked is why particular populations, such as privileged male students and academics, are especially prone to peer cultures that enable non-consensual behaviours? They’re not the only ones, but here I think the Stanford Prison Experiment could still teach us difficult lessons about what we consider to be evil or appalling actions.

Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, points out that those who do things we consider evil or appalling (like rape) are not always those we consider to be evil (like privileged students). That sometimes makes it difficult for some people to judge them as perpetrators (like the judge in the Brock Turner trial). It’s only by recognising that these actions are ‘banal’, relying on a cliched type of peer pressure (the type of claims made by Brock Turner’s father), that we can begin the process of destroying the cultures they are supporting.

2 thoughts on “What the Stanford Prison Experiment tells us about rape culture in elite American institutions.

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