An analysis of two films on obedience to authority with 'Experimenter' and 'The Stanford Prison Experiment'

Two Films on Obedience to Authority
Experimenter (2015, Director: Michael Almereyda)
The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015, Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez)

In 2015, two films were released which have so many parallels in theme and message, they need to be considered together. Both are dramatisations of true events, but dramatisations which are careful to remain close to the reality of the actual events. Both involve experiments which tell us something about the human tendency to obey figures of authority, and the evils that can result, and can raise important questions about that tendency.

Here, we look at the message within both of the projects.

The Milgram Study

In 1961, Yale University psychology professor Stanley Milgram began a study, now familiar to most people as The Milgram Experiment. For those still unfamiliar with the experiment, the details are as follows. Randomly chosen individuals were told they were participating in an experiment to determine how far negative consequences influenced learning and memorization. Each person, designated a ‘teacher’, was to ask test questions, through a microphone, of a supposed test subject or ‘learner’ isolated in a nearby room. If the question was answered incorrectly, the teacher was to press a switch which would administer an electric shock to the learner. The initial shock was mild, but with each wrong answer, the intensity of the electric shock was gradually increased.

In fact, there was no memorisation study, and the electric shocks were not real. Not even the learner was real: the person sequestered in the next room was a hired actor. It was the teacher, the person reading the questions and administering the shocks, who was being studied. The only genuine electric shock employed during the test was a sample shock which was given to the assigned teacher before the test began, supposedly to show him how the device worked, but actually to make clear to him that the shocks would be quite painful.

As the intensity of the electric shock was increased with each wrong answer, the audible reaction of the supposed test subject became first pained, then alarmed. He finally began to object to the strength of the shock, then to say he wished to leave the study, then to frantically demand to be released. At last, if the shocks were increased to their highest level, he would cry out in pain, and finally lapse into complete silence, suggesting unconsciousness. Once a teacher had administered the maximum level shock of 450 volts three times in succession, the test was concluded.

The question was, how far would each teacher go in administering punishment? The answer, to Milgram’s surprise, was that the majority, about 65%, continued to administer the shocks up to the highest level, until the testing was complete, even as their subject screamed and begged him to stop. The remaining 35% refused to continue for at least part of the test.

What is perhaps most striking about this reaction is that the Milgram study carefully avoided any form of threat or coercion on the part of the administrator, a man in a lab coat calmly taking notes on the proceedings. The teachers continued merely because they were politely instructed to do so, by the person in authority, using simple statements like, “Please go on,” or, “The test must continue to its conclusion” whenever a teacher expressed concern over the subject’s condition.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1971, a second and more elaborate experiment was conducted by Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, funded by the U.S. Navy, who considered it useful to gain insight into the interactions between military prisoners and guards. Zimbardo was partly inspired by the Milgard Experiment of ten years earlier. A mock prison was set up in a deserted wing of the university. Volunteer test subjects, all male university students, after being screened to ensure no mental instability or history of violence, were randomly divided into “prisoners” and “guards,” were given guard/prisoner uniforms, and after a simulated arrest the prisoners were placed in the locked cells under supervision of the guards. Little instruction was given, except that they were to behave like genuine prisoners and guards. Guards were issued police batons along with their uniforms, but told they were not permitted to strike or injure the prisoners.

The study was meant to last two weeks, but had to be discontinued early, as the situation became chaotic and dangerous. Critics of the study feel that it was still permitted to go on longer than it should have.

After a very brief period (less than a day) in which the subjects were tentative and self-conscious, they quickly fell into their assigned roles. The guards became authoritarian and demanding, the prisoners more and more submissive, and the situation itself rapidly lost any sense of play-acting, and took on a reality of its own. As the guards transitioned from domineering to openly abusive, some of the prisoners attempted to rebel and thwart the guards, which in turn seemed to urge the guards on to more aggressive and punitive behaviour. A guard used his baton to strike a prisoner in the face by the second day, and the situation worsened from there.

What is difficult to believe or understand, to the outside observer, is how real the environment felt to those participating. Two months after the experiment ended, one former “prisoner” commented in an interview, “It still is a prison to me. I don’t regard it as an experiment or a simulation. It was just a prison that was run by psychologists instead of by the state.” He describes feeling that his real self, the person who had entered the experiment, had become remote, and that he really was Prisoner 416. In fact, several of the prisoners began to show signs of severe anxiety, panic, dissociation with reality, and depression. One of the most strongly affected of the young men became convinced that the study was bogus, that the prison was real and that the subjects would never be released.

The guards became increasingly sadistic, depriving the prisoners of sleep, then of toilet privileges, then punishing any imagined rebelliousness of disrespect with isolation in a closet, then forcing the prisoners to perform humiliating acts for their amusement, while all but one or two of the prisoners gradually gave up fighting back and became increasingly passive, accepting their abuse without emotion. As the guards’ mistreatment became more creative and more relentless, Zimbardo finally called and end to the study.

The Movies

Both these films were done with the intention of being as factual as possible about the nature of the experiments and their results. Earlier films based on these studies have altered or dramatized the facts to some extent; these two strive for accuracy, at times nearly to the point of being more a re-enactment than a drama.

Experimenter opens on a scene in which subjects for the study are being chosen, and we are introduced to the rules and parameters of the experiment as it was experienced by the “teachers” themselves. We are guided through the story by Stanley Milgram himself (Peter Sarsgaard), who periodically detaches himself from the story and speaks to the camera, so that we alternate between the portrayal of events, and Milgram’s thoughts on them. The experiments are shown in some detail, and we observe along with Milgram and his associates the reactions of his subjects, all of whom clearly struggle with the painful task of administering shocks on their test partner, but most of whom go through with it all the same.

The film deals with the experiments themselves, the public reaction, and Milgram’s other work in a straightforward way. Added interest comes from public and private disputes over the ethics of the test format, and what the results tell us, all of which are remarked on by Milgram as narrator, in ways which often go beyond simple commentary. When Milgram, addressing the audience directly, approaches one of the more salient questions brought up by the tests, the significance of it is signalled by the literal presence of an elephant in the room behind him. One such “elephant in the room” relates to the fact that Milgram’s family had narrowly escaped being placed in Nazi concentration camps. It was a part of his personal history that inspired his interest in the idea of morality in conflict with authority, and his decision to conduct the experiments, along with the Adolf Eichmann trials which were taking place in 1961, during which Eichmann famously defended his actions by claiming he was following orders. Ironically, the melodramatic 1975 film based on the experiments re-wrote the character of Milgram to make him non-Jewish, a fact which may deserve an elephant of its own.

Even more interesting are the symbols and replicas relating to Milgram’s work, appearing too frequently, and too briefly and unobtrusively, to keep track of. It eventually becomes impossible to miss the constant examples of everything Milgram has observed about human behaviour: background characters reacting to each other, following examples, unconsciously conforming, acquiescing to authority figures, or keeping unspoken rules of social interaction. Toward the end of the film, the examples are silently acknowledged and even entered into by some of the characters. This kind of creative and subtle use of film techniques to add to the story makes the movie entertaining as well as informative.

The film continues through the rest of Milgram’s career, which was reasonably successful although his later work never gained the attention of his 1961 experiment. It ends in 1984 – another elephant appears as Milgram mentions Orwell’s book – which was the year of his death.

No final conclusion is pressed on us regarding the Milgram experiments. His colleagues, many of his friends, even the test subjects themselves, wanted to rationalize and explain away the implications of the study. Nevertheless, the results stand, and were even replicated and confirmed in other circumstances. Possibly the most intriguing is a 2004 adaptation of the Milgram experiments into the format of a televised game show, in which “teachers” were not instructed to continue giving shocks to subjects by a person in authority, but were loudly urged on by a live audience. In that instance, participants gave the full range of shocks not the usual 65% of the time, but 80%.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is less creative in its portrayal of the 1971 study, as it attempts to be a fairly literal re-enactment, based on the films kept by the study’s administrators. However, it does not lack in drama. The film omits the long periods of inaction or mundane activities which must have been part of the simulated prison experience, leaving a taut, streamlined depiction of the test subjects’ rapid descent into brutality and sadism.

The movie captures not only the claustrophobic feeling of the cells, but the genuine fear and desperation of the temporary prisoners, the gleeful cruelty of their guards. It also manages to make the situation plausible and real, a difficult task, since even the study’s organizers found it hard to believe the situation, and the participants’ mental state, could deteriorate so completely in such a short period of time.

The movie contains a parallel story: the conflict between Dr Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) and his associates, who were watching and filming the proceedings. Zimbardo is unconsciously swept up in the action taking place in the cells, and even places himself in the test situation in the role of prison warden. His attachment to his own position of authority in the study is as apparent to the audience as it is unconscious to Zimbardo himself. As the prison environment becomes more strained, and the guards more violent, Dr Zimbardo’s subordinates repeatedly urge him to intervene, or to end the study prematurely. In spite of their alarm, in spite of worrying symptoms in some of the prisoners, they consistently obey the professor in charge and allowed the study to continue. The study administrators themselves were a real-life prison study, or at least a Milgram experiment, in action.

Even when the outcome of the experiment is known in advance, the film is suspenseful and disturbing. The acting is first rate, the prison scenes done in a naturalistic way. The conclusion, in which the prisoners and guards speak together as “civilians,” after the study is over, is brief and open ended, allowing the viewer to draw his own conclusions.

In spite of their different approaches to the subject matter, both films are excellent accounts of these two related experiments, which bring out the questions arising from each study and urge us to take them into consideration. They are also excellent, if often disturbing, as entertainment.

Other materials:

Stanley Milgram described his study in the 1974 book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View

In 2007, Zimbardo wrote The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which parallels his Stanford experiments with abuses by prison guards at Abu Ghraib Prison.