The Final Reckoning of the Stanford Prison Saga - Part 1: The Aftermath of ‘The Lifespan of a Lie’
Some years ago, two bold men — Ben Blum here on Medium and Thibault Le Texier — made a valiant attempt to expose a landmark psychology experiment for a lie. Initially, their frontal attack with substantiating evidence bowled over a receptive audience. However, despite a courageous effort to debunk the Stanford Prison Experiment, the directed demonstration still stands as a seminal social sciences study. Philip Zimbardo, the principal researcher, escaped final judgment once more.
Bewildered, I started to wonder if Blum only touched the tip of the iceberg? Could it be that Le Texier merely scratched the surface? Was the staging of brutal guards and prisoners faking their emotional breakdown not even half the story? What are the chances that, perish the thought, the prison chronicle was a preconceived fabrication?
These loaded questions energized me to find out what happened in the basement of Stanford’s Department of Psychology. Applying a sound method to detect the flaws in a composed work of art, I uncovered doctored material, planned prisoner releases, completely made-up scenes, numerous distortions, several critical discrepancies, and a whole bunch of conceived drama.
Furthermore, my delving brought to light massive design flaws, masked plotlines, and above all, some utterly baffling facts about the dramatic ending that will blow your mind. So if you can stand the suspense, then you are in for a treat.
The Final Reckoning of the Stanford Prison Saga is a series of articles that I will release in the coming period. Each episode discloses more uncanny details of the most audacious theater in the history of social science.
Time to pull the cloaking curtain back.
Rally around the ruckus
My endeavor started in the fall of 2019. I was reading a book by Rutger Bregman on a hopeful history of humankind where he argues that most people are good. To make his case, he tells the story of the Stanford Prison Experiment. An iconic psychology prison simulation and one of the seminal studies on evil. Long story short, he denounces the research as directed theater and a hoax.
For anyone unfamiliar with this landmark psycho-research, let me give you a brief outline. The study was conducted in August 1971 to determine what happens when you put good people in an evil place. Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? To answer this, 21 college students played guards and prisoners in a mock prison down in the basement of Jordan Hall. Within a day, some students started to act abnormal and abusive. The student’s behavior quickly went spiraling out of control, forcing the researchers to stop the study prematurely.
Philip Zimbardo, the psychology professor in charge, and his academic staff attributed what they proclaimed was pathological behavior to the power of the situation. They concluded that it is not always our innate features or personality that make us do evil things. Situational and systemic forces can also pressure to act out of character — a conclusion Zimbardo has fervently and unwaveringly defended ever since.
Continuing, although I was unraveling ideas floating around on our free will, something in Bregman’s recital stood out. He wrote that years before his new book, he had surmised the study to be solid science and, without reserve, used it to point out that anyone can quickly turn into a monster. But now, he believes the exact opposite. In hindsight, he thinks that he had somehow found the uncontrollable metamorphosis into a beast an irresistible notion.
Bregman’s sudden denouncement of the prison study intrigued me. I felt his radical change of heart tantalizing. What made him glorify a science study and then, years later, run it into the ground? Enticed, I wanted to find out more to see what pursuing a line of inquiry might reveal about our nature.
Above all, I wanted to grasp the ramification of the proclaimed hoax on social science. The Stanford Prison Experiment is supposedly one of the most famous psychology studies. The study, apparently plain science fraud, made Philip Zimbardo a psychology icon.
A lifetime of controversy
I started to rummage around the Internet for intel on this contentious piece of research. Surfing around and trying to get my bearing in a chaotic narrative landscape, I quickly found myself head-deep in a cesspool of commotion. The Internet is a hotbed condemning the official version that Zimbardo has been telling. In no time, I was bogged down in a malicious marsh of malcontent while trying to make sense of all the fuss.
It was immediately apparent that the study has regularly resided in the shadow of discord. Since the official publications in 1973, the prison simulation faced surging and subsiding tidal waves of critique. And the controversy continues to haunt it.
Specifically, a flotilla of fulminations flooded the Internet in the summer of 2018. Within just a few days, sensation seekers added voice to tooting foul play. Stanford prison experiment was a sham. Study turns out to be fraud. The Stanford Prison Experiment gets debunked. Most famous study in psychology turns out to be theater. Famous experiment is deeply flawed. The Stanford Prison Experiment was bunk. The findings are deceit. Time to dismiss the Stanford Prison Experiment.
Bold attention-grabbing and vilifying headlines advertised infamy. A plethora of articles tried to captivate an awe-struck audience. Eager to fan the fraudulent flames, writers appeared delighted to catch a lauded tenured psychology professor with both hands in the cooky jar. Even the media had a field day badgering charlatan Zimbardo, holding him culpable of conspiring to stage a con.
The bulk of the published outcry referenced an exposé by Ben Blum on Medium called The Lifespan of a Lie. Blum researched the Stanford Prison Experiment for years. Cracks appeared in Zimbardo’s tightly controlled narrative when Blum bypassed him and directly contacted some of the participants. What the former students revealed led him to draw an astounding conclusion: the study is a lie, challenging the psychology community to scrutinize one of its bedrock studies.
Blum partly based his conclusion on the discoveries made by Thibault Le Texier. Le Texier had gone through the archives and categorically concluded in History of a Lie that the official version Zimbardo told the world was seriously flawed.
I wanted to know more. So I decided to close read Blum’s counter of the official story. Blum’s conclusion that Zimbardo is a fraud is centered on compelling evidence that the student guards did not act on their own. Zimbardo has always maintained that the growing brutality during the simulation unfolded by itself. But analysis of the archived files on the study contradicts this.
Audio recordings and interviews with the involved revealed that the staff coached the guards to act tough. The most brutal guard playacted and considered the experiment to be an acting improv exercise. It seemed more accurate to view the Stanford Prison Experiment as semi-scripted theatre than objective scientific research.
Still, was the Stanford Prison a classic case of sordid science, or worse, a fabricated fiasco?
The Korpi scam
Blum also details the surprising confession of Douglas Korpi. Korpi played prisoner #8612. He applied for the prison study expecting he could study for his Graduate Record Examinations — a standardized test required for admittance in graduate schools. After the guards rudely awakened him at 2.30 a.m. on the first night, he realized the study would not be a cushy summer job.
Naturally, Korpi wanted out. But Zimbardo would not let him. He told Korpi that someone could only leave the study on medical or psychiatric grounds. On hearing this, Korpi went berserk. Some 35 hours into the prison simulation, he had an alleged emotional breakdown.
Korpi became famous for his hysterical outbursts, “And I want out now! I mean, God. I mean, Jesus Christ! I’m burning up inside, don’t you know.” Audio recordings of his frenzy went the world over. Zimbardo used the tantrum repeatedly as a prime illustration of how a prison setting made normal, healthy young men suffer mentally.
On several occasions, Korpi helped Zimbardo prophesize this message by reiterating his breakdown was one of the most disturbing experiences in his life. His steadfast support of Zimbardo’s message helped make people believe the detrimental effect a bad situation can have on the mind.
Nearly a half-century later, Douglas Korpi admitted to Ben Blum he feigned his outburst. He did not suffer an emotional breakdown. Instead, he confessed he pretended, thereby implying the study is null and void theatrics. You can imagine how damaging Korpi’s coming clean is to the credibility of one of the most famous psychology studies.
Not only did Korpi admit his theatrics. He divulges that Zimbardo stalked him for years to get him to do more media appearances, which he refused. Korpi even changed his phone number to an unlisted one to avoid being contacted by Zimbardo. Even so, this did not deter Zimbardo, who got hold of his new number and approached him once more.
Blum’s unsettling epistle also reveals why Korpi played along. He continued to pretend his breakdown act was real in exchange for referrals by Zimbardo for his psychology practice — a quid pro quo. Korpi gladly accepted these referrals.
What’s more, Korpi professed the researchers committed a heinous act of false imprisonment, for which he could have sued Zimbardo. Regrettably, he never followed this up to get justice. Instead, Korpi freeloaded on referrals to enrich himself while playing a lead part in covering up (science) fraud for nearly 50 years. He tried to help people mentally and emotionally suffering while pretending he had firsthand experience. I dread to think what went on in the privacy of his practice.
Let’s get on the bandwagon
Korpi’s disclosure caused a host of journalists, bloggers, and scholars to jump on the lets-badger-Zimbardo bandwagon. They eagerly reiterated or paraphrased the breaking news of a sham. And every single reporter appeared to be entirely convinced of Zimbardo’s guilt based predominantly on the testimony of a deceiver. Korpi was collectively embraced as crown witness turning state’s evidence.
I was dumbstruck. How gullible are these broadcasters of infamy? Wake up and smell the coffee. What makes the confession of a self-serving con artist even remotely trustworthy? Are we seriously supposed to believe this unsavory character, a practicing psychologist to boot, suddenly grew a conscience? Or are we once more, this time with eyes wide open, being bamboozled by the same charlatan?
Moreover, why is Korpi suddenly coming clean? After he was Zimbardo’s bannerman for decades, he simply turned Brutus with his testimony for some obscure reason. Perhaps he is trying to get Zimbardo off his back or get back at him. Or is Korpi still in league with Zimbardo? It is not unthinkable that this is another scam to revitalize attention to the experiment and themselves. So is he for real or feeding fodder to fools?
Mind you, the evidence Korpi brought in to corroborate his pretense breakdown is highly questionable. Korpi mentioned his faking in the part of the 1992 documentary Quiet Rage that was edited out. A fact he knew for close to 25 years before leaking the breaking news to Blum. We only have his word.
You can imagine I did not share the perverted euphoric sentiment that appears to have ensnared reporters to reference Blum’s exposé in blind faith and embrace Korpi as the prodigal son repenting his sin. Forest Gump might be right after all, “Stupid is as stupid does.” Fortunately, there were more eye-openers in Blum’s exposé.
Getting caught out
Besides the stunning revelations by some of the study participants, Blum’s unveiling contains a transcript of a tendentious interview with Zimbardo. In a bombardment of questions and postulations — like the researchers choreographed the results to substantiate a prepossessed conclusion — Zimbardo tries to desperately defend his study.
Nonetheless, Zimbardo quickly grows weary of justifying his version of the truth. Proud that the Stanford Prison Experiment is still the talk of the town, he boasts that there is no science study that people still discuss after 50 years. He adds that he will no longer do any interviews after his exchange with Blum since it is a waste of time. The most famous study in the history of psychology needs no defending. Its defense is longevity.
When you stop to think about it, this is a weird statement. A mere half-century pales by comparison to dramatic myths and epic legends dating back thousands of years. Zimbardo’s reference to longevity feels like an attempt to position his story among the countless fantastically fabricated allegories that still circulate after centuries to pass on key messages to the next generations. Is he hinting at mythical qualities?
Back on track, Blum was not the last to interview Zimbardo. After taking note of Blum’s exposé, Brian Resnick wrote an article with the headline that we have just learned the experiment was a fraud. He then called Zimbardo to ask about the evidence in Blum’s article. Resnick wanted to ascertain what Zimbardo would do now that the narrative of his most famous work changes dramatically.
A tense conversation followed. Where Zimbardo appears matter-of-fact and levelheaded in Blum’s report, he is nothing of the sort in the interview he gave Resnick. Zimbardo asserts emotionally perturbed in unambiguous wording that nothing Korpi said to Ben Blum has any truth, “Zero! And that there is zero chance any of the prisoners were acting.”
It is clear that Zimbardo obtrusively overreacts. Any clinician knows that when someone starts to clamor down in absolute terms that such a person is trying to create a smokescreen. The interview transcript reads like a scientist caught in the act of force-feeding a sensational fiction who frantically tries to cover up. It is not the rational response of someone who is falsely implicated.
Zimbardo’s selective response
The allegations and confrontations compelled Zimbardo to write a response to protect his legacy despite feeling reluctant and preferring to ignore the criticism. Only 16 days after Blum’s unmasking on Medium, he released a 26-page Response to the Recent Criticism with the crosshairs on Blum. An interesting long-winded reply that ultimately is a self-serving read.
In his repudiation — not a rebuttal, mind you, Zimbardo made that adamantly clear — he sticks to his guns. Zimbardo never wavers or even questions himself. Instead, he remains a steadfast advocate of the power of the situation and consistently questions the tales of others. There is not a single hint of being in error or seeing even the remotest validity in what his commentaries postulate.
Although Zimbardo categorically denies that his response is a rebuttal, the first part sure reads like one. Here he reacts to six cherry-picked purported issues with his study while shrewdly ignoring all other recent revelations. The response only addresses a mere handful of foul play allegations — not even the main criticisms — by presenting an alternate explanation.
Bottom line, in an attempt to silence the bad-mouthing of his brainchild and settle with his criticasters once and for all, Blum and fellow criticasters get portrayed as deviant bloggers who make unfounded accusations or merely misinterpret things.
The belittling dismissal of seemingly valid criticism baffled me. Impugning the source is a predictable tactic of a desperate person clinging to an untenable position. Moreover, the deliberate selection of six issues to retaliate raises questions. Whenever someone handpicks criticism to make a point, is what that person is trying to pin genuine? Did Zimbardo select critique he deemed potentially most damaging to his reputation, or is his selection perhaps based on the ease to relay critique and sow doubt? Whatever the answer, not addressing some of the main issues is a definite red flag.
The actual bulk of Zimbardo’s reprisal recites old ideas. This part reads like a preacher’s sermon. In essence, he repeats his situational gospel to the choir. It has little to do with responding to anything. He even incorporated five pages of selected references to back up his claims and impress his following.
There was one rather peculiar statement that stuck out. Zimbardo suggested in his response that there is nothing to hide to clear himself of covering things up. He emphasized that he put all the study material in public archives — providing his critics with their ammunition.
However, there is no mention of the ammo’s quality to blow holes in his narrative. As a former Naval Officer and war veteran, I wondered if he gave his opponents live rounds or useless duds and blanks? I made a mental note to check.
Psychology’s deafening silence
Understandably, tired of standing up for his study, Zimbardo wants to lay the ruckus to rest. His response was an attempt to have the final say. Self-righteously, he even suggested his response should have silenced the criticasters once and for all. Well, it did not.
Anyway, just as suddenly as the tsunami of outrage swelled to gain momentum, the waves of fulminations ebbed away. In a matter of weeks, the bolder Ben Blum threw in the polemic pond was no more than a mere ripple. Posts went silent, and everyone left the proverbial echo chamber to move on.
For a brief moment, Philip Zimbardo faced the collective ire of the Internet. But it was little more than a fleeting furor. The Stanford scam soon became old news, leaving the impression that the study successfully weathered another assault. After half a century playing Whack-A-Mole, untouchable Zimbardo escaped once more. The thought sent me reeling.
So I searched for an official retraction or any kind of reprimand, expecting the psychology community to fume with race and shame. But I found none. Sure, some esteemed colleagues pleaded to strike the study from textbooks and to stop celebrating this anti-scientific work. Somewhat puzzling tweets even claimed that the research was never considered to be scientific. The study is presented in classrooms as a demonstration and a notorious case of ethical malfeasance.
Still, the reactions from peer psychologists was an anti-climax. The indifference made me wonder why is psychology, the alleged science of self-reflection, incapable and unwilling to turn the Stanford Prison simulation into a demonstration of intolerable research practices? Does exposing fraud matter none? Is this a license for young academics to fabricate their own cockamamie stories? Or is something else amiss?
Perhaps the jury is still out on whether the study is research misconduct. So far, we have not much to go on. Deceiver Douglas Korpi’s word makes him barely a trusted messenger. As things are, it is impossible to determine whether Korpi is a double agent of deceit or finally telling the truth about his playacting. And instructing guard John Mark to act tough is a trivial case of misrepresentation. At least not enough to classify a seminal study as science fraud.
The other arguments Blum brought to bear were also not strong enough to sway the field of psychology. Yet, the unclarity needs resolving. If the prison simulation is fraudulent, Zimbardo’s acolytes Curtis Banks, Craig Haney, and Christina Maslach played a crucial role in covering up the theatrics. And they all became psychology professors.
One mouse roared
Notwithstanding, even the collegial call to cleanse and expunge psychology from a degrading study blew over. The psychology community did nothing to retract or correct an alleged travesty. Instead, it went back to business as if nothing noteworthy had happened, leaving Zimbardo’s reputation unscathed.
Except for Le Texier. In 2019, he meant to deal the final blow with his article Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment. The article got published by the peer-reviewed journal American Psychologist of the American Psychological Association (APA) and zooms in on several severe deficiencies. His paper exposes the experiment for what it was — an incredibly flawed study that should have died an early death.
While Le Texier tried to finish off the experiment, peer-reviewed papers continued to get published to pay homage and add credence to the prison simulation. Researchers bothered to rethink the role of identity leadership in the Stanford Prison Experiment while referring to the study as one of the most famous in psychology history. Another scholar sees the drama as one of the most notorious and controversial psychology studies ever devised. There is even a paper that portrays new revelations about the study’s scientific validity.
Unmistakably, the study is still very much alive and kicking. And there is more. The APA website, which Zimbardo chaired in 2002, continues to flaunt the experiment under the ominous title Demonstrating the Power of Social Situations via a Simulated Prison Experiment. According to APA, the research is a classic demonstration of situational power to influence individual attitudes, values, and behavior. Hardly a conviction of fraud.
Adding all this up, the Stanford Prison Experiment and Philip Zimbardo are still standing because a science community continues to frame the research as a famous, notorious, or seminal study. Is this because psychology is incapable of reflecting and correcting misconduct? Or is it because psychology authorities and esteemed academics praised him with honors for his work? Are they feeling guilty by association?
These unsettling thoughts came to mind when I found all the material — including the criticism, controversy, and denunciations of academic misconduct — proudly parading on Philip Zimbardo’s official Stanford Prison Experiment website. He meticulously collects all references as notches on his belt, triumphantly basking in the media attention he begets.
Browsing through his website made me queasy. The site is not of a charismatic charlatan caught in the act and discredited by his peers. On the contrary, Zimbardo flirts his lifetime achievement on the Stanford Prison Experiment and everything related to it. Even his confederates have weighed in with personal praise to the master in support of his work. Getting down to brass tacks, the idea that the field of psychology is covering Zimbardo started to grow on me.
I knew this had to end.
Preparing to foray
Resolute, I decided to enter the fray and take time off in search of revealing nuggets. I was adamant about leaving no stone unturned. But I did not want my quashing to end up in the halls of feeble attempts with close but no cigar. So, where to start?
Zimbardo’s response seemed a logical entry point into the narrative wasteland. Therefore, I opted to focus on his handpicked selection of criticisms. They had to be important. Unintentionally, Zimbardo told me where to look, laying a bread crumb trail. All I had to do was follow the path. The question was how to proceed?
Thinking about the steps to take made me wonder if the Pirandellian prison — the frame used for the New York Times Magazine to reach a wider audience — was taken literally. Italian playwright and Nobel Laureate Luigi Pirandello blended fiction and fact into spellbinding plays. He was famous for how reality gives way to an ideal and creative truth in which actors become indistinct from the characters they play. His most remarkable feature was the almost magical power to turn psychological analysis into good theatre.
Could it be, since Pirandello inspired Zimbardo, that the highlighted drama in one of psychology’s seminal studies was scripted? Were public, press and psychologists mislead by a composed piece of art? Did the researching psychologists write a Pirandellian play?
Realizing the colossal feat to kill a Pirandellian phantom, I knew I had to prepare properly. After all, a half-century of controversy had not cut the tale down to size. Even the damaging revelations by Blum and Le Texier had done little more than dent the study. How to proceed without facing the same unappealing prospect of hitting a brick wall?
Frankly, attempting to dispose of a landmark experiment by exposing its inherent methodological flaws is foolhardy. That is what everyone has tried. I knew I needed a different approach for the final reckoning of The Stanford Prison. One that would allow me to get to the bottom of what went on. So I devised a sound investigative method to unravel a composed piece of art to detect any fabrication. For anyone interested, I will post the method I applied in due course.
With my method in hand, I still needed to confirm whether enough reliable and revealing material could make my incursion into enemy territory a success. At all costs, I wanted to avoid falling into the Korpi-hearsay trap and spread more rumors. The pitfall of adding to the misinformation meant any news needed to be foolproof and evidence-based, not based on inferences or singular testimony. Only the raw data could provide irrefutable proof unless the core files were contaminated.
Rest assured, when I looked for available sources of inspiration, I found that the Online Archive of California with the original study files was a bona fide treasure trove. The same applies to the Stanford University Library with files to celebrate the 40th anniversary. Especially video and audio recordings in the exhibit section of the Stanford Prison Experiment helped me piece part of the Pirandellian puzzle. Additionally, Zimbardo’s prison experiment website turned out to be delightfully insightful. The overview under related links helped me hit the ground running.
Naturally, the three official papers published early 1973 — the Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison in the International Journal of Criminology & Penology, A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison in the Naval Research Review, and The mind is a formidable jailer: A Pirandellian Prison in the New York Times Magazine — were excellent for cross-referencing in combination with the slideshow narration. Lastly, Zimbardo’s 2007 book The Lucifer Effect was a great reference guide to compare the different versions of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
The Cast Members
Forearmed and forewarned, I was adequately prepared to foray into the narrative world of the Stanford Prison to take Zimbardo’s response apart. But before I take you on a rollercoaster ride, let me introduce the actors. I have taken the configuration at the start on Sunday. During the prison simulation, the staff made significant changes to both the prisoner cells and guard shifts. And these are the correct names, unlike those used in The Lucifer Effect.
Glenn Gee (#3401): Quirky and deviant Asian-American. Released Wednesday 7 p.m.
Paul Baran (#5704): Rebel activist with ulterior motives. Released Friday
Whitt Hubbell (#7258): Fun-loving and all-American athlete. Released Friday
Stewart Levin (#819): Stocky anti-authoritarian who lost control. Released Wednesday 9 p.m.
Richard Yacco (#1037): Rebellious and deviant character. Paroled Thursday around 8 p.m.
Douglas Korpi (#8612): Famous for his hysteria and breakdown. Released Monday 10 p.m.
Tom Williams (#2093): The Sarge. He strictly followed orders. Released Friday
Jerry Shue (#5486): Maintained perspective of an experiment. Released Friday
Jim Rowney (#4325): Model prisoner committed to get out. Paroled Thursday 5.30 p.m.
Clay Ramsey (#416): In late Wednesday, he went on a hunger strike. Released Friday
David Gorchoff (#8612–2): Research assistant and informer. Entered midday Tuesday and debriefed Wednesday at 10 a.m.
Morning or A-shift: 2 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Andre Cerovina: Henchmen having trouble maintaining his role
Karl Van Orsdol: Tallest guard in the lead, upset with informer’s misbehavior
Michael Varn: By the book rule enforcer who followed suit
Day or B-shift: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Terry Barnett: Fair and forceful role-model guard commanding respect
John Loftus: The kindest correction officer and non-stop smoker
John Mark: Famous as the good guard who defied pressure to act tough
Night or C-shift: 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.
David Eshleman: The verbally abusive John Wayne and most brutal guard
Chuck Burton: John Wayne’s sidekick. The unsung hero who followed his lead
Geoff Loftus: A laidback guard loitering around and helping out
James Petersen: Sent home on Monday believing he got fired
Moses Moreno: Reinforced the day shift on Monday and Tuesday
THE (key) STAFF MEMBERS
David Jaffe: The Warden. Struggled between pig and twerp
Craig Haney: Chief Lieutenant. Played a central role in releasing Korpi
Curtis Banks: Chief Lieutenant. Held various interviews and intervened
Carlo Prescott: Head Parole Board. He took out his prison frustrations
Tim Bruinsma: The Public Defender. Interviewed the prisoners Friday
Eugene Cahouet: The Priest. The father brought in for counseling
Christina Maslach: The Whistleblower. Played the leading lady
Philip Zimbardo: The Superintendent. Lost perspective
In the online archived files, the personal names are generally blacked out. Therefore, it took me a while to reconstruct the participating actors. Yet, many names are unedited. The inconsistent concealment can impossibly be for privacy reasons. Now is this a botch job, or are we being hoodwinked? The incomprehensible blackening was a harbinger for what I found out.
The first issue I dug my teeth in was on the most brutal guard nicknamed John Wayne. He told Blum he intentionally playacted his role. Zimbardo was resolute in his response. In his view, this student internalized his role and reveled in power to abuse the prisoners. Afterward, he tried to cleanse his conscience, rationalizing after the facts.
Center stage is David Eshleman, the tyrannical actor in the lead guard role. The Stanford Prison saga revolves around his brutal character. He was the quintessence of how a good person can turn evil in the wrong place. Except, the notorious guard was not who we were led to believe. Just wait for what’s in store in the next episode: David Eshleman’s deepfake.