The Lucifer Effect: The Stanford Prison Experiment (Movie: A Review)

There aren’t many things that could picture how evil human beings might be—one of them was the movie “Stanford Prison Experiment” (2015).

“Stanford Prison Experiment” was a movie about a psychological experiment held by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, which was conducted at Stanford University on August 14-20, 1971. The study was designed to learn about how bad environment could turn good people into bad ones. The method was to divide the 24 voluntary participants into 2 groups: prisoners and prison guards. The prisoners were stripped off their individuality and given numbers as their new identity, while the prison guards were encouraged to apply their power and authority to control the prisoners. The situation was designed to create the sense of disorientation and powerlessness among the prisoners, while giving (almost) unlimited power and control to the guards.

Long story short, we could see how the prisoners, who united and tried to rebel at first, had quickly become disintegrated and fully compliant to the guards. Besides, the amount and degree of both the psychological abuse and physical punishment applied by the guards had also escalated quickly. The project was terminated early—only 6 days instead of 1-2 weeks in the former plan. Both the participants and the researchers were both psychologically affected by this experiment, in a bad way.


It is a very interesting subject to discuss—about how ripping off someone’s identity, by disallowing the prisoners to use their real names and giving them prison numbers as identity instead, making them wearing nightdresses to “enhance their powerlessness and femininity”, had changed them into believing that they were less of a human being, and that they’re not worth the standard human rights, simply because they were losing their identity.

And then I realized that it’s how you apply power and control to others. It’s how you make people obedient. It’s how you make people do whatever you tell them to do without questioning. That’s how you brainwash people into becoming bad people, to do bad things: you steal their identity and you give them a new identity—which you can manipulate easily into your personal interest; namely ideology, religion, etc.

You steal their identity so that they think they are nothing and they have nothing to fight for, so that they feel lost and hopeless. And then you will come and you lure them with hope: giving them something to hold on, something to identify themselves with, something for them to fight for. And they will die for you, because you’re their savior and the new identity is all they have now.

We are humans. Maslow’s hierarchy puts self-actualization on the top of basic human needs, and there is no self-actualization without “self”. This is why almost all terrorists always associate themselves with certain affiliations (and appear to be passive or submissive, except the leaders), because the new identity is almost always a collective identity—it is easier to recruit more people that way. That is why almost all terrorists were recruited in young ages—the ages of transition where we are still trying to figure out our place in society. That is why almost all terrorists are ready to die defending their ideology.

(P.S. I finally understood more about Buddhism concept about anatta [selflessness/not-self] [My other posts: 1 and 2] being one among the things that could free us from sufferings.)


On the other hand, it is also interesting to observe how the prison guards, who had passed several psychological tests and were stated “mentally healthy”, could perform such psychological abuse to the prisoners simply because they were given the authority to do so. The guards were given uniforms and mirror-sunglasses to prevent eye contact and thus promoted anonymity. Regardless of knowing that the whole experiment was being recorded, they were being inventive in creating physical punishments and psychological abuse and instilling fear and terror among the prisoners.

The most surprising fact, though, was that no one tried to stop them from performing the abuse to the prisoners—neither the fellow guards nor the other prisoners, despite all of them knowing that the whole thing was just an experiment. No one dared to question their authority. It felt normal for both the prisoners and the guards that people with authority can treat others like their inferiors, without respect to other human beings, and I think there is something wrong with that.

One disturbing thing was the fact that none of the prison guards tried to quit the experiment; all of them never came late to their shift, never once called in sick or skipped work (compared to the prisoners: several had to be released earlier due to mental breakdown). Only one of the researchers had ever questioned the morality of the experiment.


Overall, the movie was very disturbing and I had to pause several times to mentally digest what I had just seen. I know that the same thing—even worse—is happening in real prisons, in real life, and it makes me sad because we have successfully created a system which dehumanizes us. It is terrible.

It seems that the most effective way to destroy a person is to mess up with his/her head. Stanford Prison Experiment has proven it.

P.P.S. I am still not satisfied with this article. The movie deserves better analysis and argument and I haven’t watched the documentary. There’s still a lot to learn.

Further reading:


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