Should Have Knowns

Ideas Roadshow
7 min readFeb 8, 2021


From: Critical Situations

When you first start delving into Philip Zimbardo’s infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, two words immediately pop to the surface.

The first is “classic”. Nearly half a century after those six intense days in August when 24 summer students had rapidly metamorphosed into sadistic guards and riotous prisoners, the study has long established itself as one of the most famous experiments in the history of social psychology, standing firmly alongside Stanley Milgram’s work a decade earlier as a formidable demonstration of the powerful effects of situational forces on human behaviour.

The second word, though, is “controversial”. Ever since the results of the study were announced, there were strong voices raised against it on ethical, statistical and procedural grounds. Some said that the numbers involved were too small to prove anything, while others maintained that circumstances were so artificial as to naturally encourage the study’s participants to role-play in the way they thought was expected by them. Meanwhile, several levelled serious criticism at Zimbardo’s own role in the study, accusing him of sinking to an almost similarly depraved state as the “guards” by allowing such emotionally-damaging experiences to continue in the name of a scientific study.

What many might not appreciate, however, is that few can be harder on the renowned Stanford University social psychologist than he is himself, consistently recognizing his own profoundly unethical behaviour, together with the vital role his then-girlfriend, Christina Maslach, played in convincing him to shut the study down 8 days earlier than planned.

Howard Burton in conversation with Philip Zimbardo

“She began to tear up. I asked her what the matter was and she got really upset. She said, ‘I can’t look at that!’ I started telling her about the dynamics of human nature and all that, and she just ran out.

“At that point, I was stressed to my limit. I was not sleeping regularly. We ran out in front of Jordan Hall — it’s now 10:30 at night — and I was yelling at her, saying, ‘Don’t you understand that there are dynamics here that have never been seen or studied before? Most experiments only last one hour, but these people are living and becoming prisoners and guards!

“She just said, ‘It’s terrible what you’re doing to these boys. They’re not prisoners or guards. They’re boys in your experiment. They are being mistreated. It’s terrible what’s happening.’

“I kept trying to re-frame it in terms of the dynamics of the situation, but she just said, ‘I don’t understand how you could see what I just saw and not react the way that I am reacting. I know you’ — she had been a TA of mine — ‘You love students. You’re a loving teacher. But this situation has changed you. You’re not the person that I thought you were.’

“And then she told me, ‘If this is the real you, I don’t want to have a relationship with you.’ That was the clincher. That was like a slap in the face.
“It was now eleven o’clock at night. I said, ‘You’re right. I will end this study tomorrow. Let’s go to dinner and think about how I’m going to shut this down.’”

There’s no point, then, in trying to convince Phil Zimbardo that he was involved in an unethical study, or that he became far too personally involved and lost his scientific objectivity. He knows that better than anyone.

“I still feel guilty about it. I allowed evil to exist. In the breakdown of every one of those kids, I am as responsible as any of the guards, because I saw what was happening and didn’t stop it.”

But beyond the guilt and finger-pointing lie some terrifying yet crucial lessons. What, exactly, was going on? How could a group of largely pacifistic students quickly slip into the role of barbarous guards, mercilessly forcing their fellow students to perform shockingly degrading acts for their amusement? None of that seems possible to be waved away by appealing to simple notions of role-playing or a lack of scientific objectivity. These were real people who rapidly began wantonly degrading and humiliating their peers just for the hell of it. And the more they did it, the more entrenched they became in their role.

What is happening, it seems, is that people’s behaviour is being strongly influenced by “situational effects”. We’re still ultimately responsible for our own actions, of course, but it’s essential to recognize the enormously influential role played by the situational power structure around us and the systems that produce it.

So goes Phil’s formal, academic, view of the underlying forces of social psychology. But suddenly, well over 30 years after the Stanford Prison Experiment, the textbooks came alive with a vengeance as the world is forced to grapple with horrific images of American servicemen and women abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

“Abu Ghraib was a replay of the Stanford prison study on steroids — exponentially worse. Things went on 12 hours every night for three months, and the few pictures that were shown publicly — a dozen pictures or so — were nowhere near the worst. I actually have access to a thousand of these images, which are truly horrendous: every different kind of degradation you can imagine, performed by American men and women, military police soldiers, on Iraqi prisoners in their charge, night after night for three months.

“How could that happen for three months? When you see the pictures, you assume it must have taken place on just one night. So right away, that means that somebody was not minding the store, that there was a systemic flaw.

The abuses only took place during the night shift. Not one abuse occurred during the day shift. That’s a situational variable.

“One of the motivations for evil is boredom. The worst abuses in the Stanford prison study were at night. The guards would come in, and they had eight hours to kill. The prisoners were sleeping, they had nothing to do, so they would wake them up and play with them.

“At Abu Ghraib, Chip Fredrick and the other guards worked 12-hour shifts, from 4 pm to 4 am. Then, at 4 am at the end of the shift, he went to sleep in a prison cell in a different part of the prison, because the prison was always under bombardment. He never left the prison, so he was situationally-bound.”

You might think that, given the stakes involved and the likelihood of such horrific circumstances repeating themselves in the ongoing “war on terror” with an unequivocally catastrophic effect on everything from international opinion to troop morale, American authorities would pay more attention to the role of powerful situational forces.

But sadly, you’d be wrong.

“General Myers actually said, ‘There is no evidence that it’s anything but those individuals. Our army, our training is above that. There is no other evidence of such a thing happening anywhere else.’

“It turns out that was a lie. At the same time Abu Ghraib was happening, the same sorts of things were happening at a number of other prisons.”

Lying about the existence of a deeply troubling systemic malady is bad enough. But denying its existence while strongly helping it to come into being is quite another. Because it turns out that the authorities in question not only knowingly turned a blind eye to the illegal and profoundly immoral treatment of prisoners, they actually clearly encouraged it.

“The pressure was coming down from Bush and all the military leaders at the top. Suddenly, military intelligence goes to the military police heads and says, ‘Your guys have to take the gloves off. We need actionable intelligence. We need your guards to prepare the prisoners so that when we interview them, they will spill the beans.’ Essentially they were saying, ‘Do whatever you have to do.’

“They’re creating a new situation by saying, ‘Do whatever you have to do. We don’t care.’ In fact, not only, ‘We don’t care,’ but, ‘We’re never going to notice.’ Had the guards not taken the pictures, they could have done worse things. Nobody would have noticed. Nobody would have cared.”

During the mounting propaganda effort behind the American invasion of Iraq, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously spoke of “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns”, owlishly attempting to differentiate between threats we are aware of, threats we can’t predict and threats we can’t even presently envision.

It goes without saying that he didn’t mention the dangers posed by wantonly ignoring basic aspects of social psychology that we had discovered long ago.

But it turns out that those well might have been the greatest threats of all to American values.

Howard Burton,

This is the introduction of Critical Situations which is based on This thought-provoking book is based on an in-depth, filmed conversation between Howard Burton and Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University.

The book is broken into chapters and includes questions for discussion at the end of each chapter. Visit the page for Philip Zimbardo for further details about the book and videos developed from the filmed conversation: