Lessons from the Stanford Prison Experiment

Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how the classic social psychology experiments can inform our understanding the attitudes and behaviors of lawyers–particularly criminal defense lawyers–toward their clients. So, I’ve decided to do a blog series exploring each of several of these classic social psychology experiments and their implications and lessons for criminal defense lawyering.

The first I will discuss is the somewhat infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University by Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues. The experimenters had planned a two week experiment simulating a prison environment using college students. However, they had to shut down the experiment prematurely after only one week because of the cruelty of some of the “prison guards” and the extreme distress experienced by some of the “prisoners.” Zimbardo his colleagues started by putting an advertisement in the local newspaper. They asked for volunteers to participate in an experiment I would pay $15 a day. The experimenters carefully screened all applicants in order to assess their psychological health. Any applicant who appeared to be emotionally or psychologically compromised in anyway was not selected. In the end, they chose twenty-four participants. The determination of who would be prisoner in who would be prison guard was made by a flip of a coin. The experimenters created a prison like environment in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford University. Their efforts to create a realistic “prison” environment were significant. In fact, they replaced the standard laboratory doors with doors with bars. Other aspects of the experiment were designed to be realistic as well. The “prisoners” were initially rounded up The help of the Palo Alto Police Department. They were arrested, handcuffed, and taken to the police department, where they were fingerprinted. There, they waited he be taken to the experiment location. Once there, a variety of things happen to them that were carefully designed to mimic that which would happen to a real prisoner. For example, they were stripped naked and deloused and they were given special prison garb that was designed to degrade them and to set them apart from the prison guards. The prison guards also were dressed carefully so as to be as realistic as possible. They were given uniforms and reflective sunglasses such as those that you might see in a classic Hollywood cop movie. The experiment participants who were playing the role of prison guard were permitted to use whatever force or practices they deemed necessary to keep control of the prisoners. Over the course of the first day or two, these “guards” became increasingly comfortable engaging in practices designed to display dominance, such as forcing the prisoners to perform push-ups, and waking them in the middle the night for head counts. On the morning of the second day, in response escalating force and punitive practices on the part of the guards, the prisoners rebelled. They tore off their numbers and barricaded themselves inside their cells. They also begin to taunt the prison guards. In an effort to put down the rebellion, the prison guards called in reinforcements–other prison guards who had been on break at the time. Eventually, the guards increased their dominant behavior, engaging in a series of tactics over a period of days that were degrading, humiliating, and thoroughly broke down the would-be prisoners. In fact, a number of prisoners were found sobbing in their cells and had eventually to be released. Perhaps most interesting, the psychologists–including Zimbardo himself–got caught up in the role play, taking on the role of prison wardens, and initially refusing to release participants who were clearly at a breaking point. When various prisoner participants displayed evidence of serious psychological distress, the experimenters, rather than fulfilling their ethical obligation to treat and release them, resisted letting them go. Other parties, including parents who came to visit their “prisoner” children and a priest who was brought in to counsel the prisoners, fell into their roles perfectly. At no time did these outsiders question the experiment, nor did they argue for release of the participants.

Forty years after the fact, what lessons can we take from this experiment? When it comes to the relationship between a criminal defendant and his lawyer, the experiment may shed light on how roles affect attitudes and decision-making of the lawyer. In our criminal justice system, the criminal defense lawyer is the defendant’s greatest ally; the lawyer is her client’s advocate, and is in the best position to help the defendant-client. An important part of advocacy is respecting–or at least valuing the client. The more the lawyer views her client as dangerous or deviant, the more difficult zealous advocacy becomes. In a very real sense, the extent to which the attorney perceives her client as worthy of effort, the harder the attorney will fight for him. Accordingly, the lawyer’s attributions about the defendant ultimately influence the disposition of his case. To what extent do various aspects of the criminal justice system interfere with the relationship of a defendant-client with his lawyer? Does the jail or prison environment contribute to a degradation in this very important relationship? Do criminal defense attorneys experience an us-versus-them mentality similar to that developed in the Stanford Prison Experiment? Or was the attitude of the “guards” a function of the job these participants were given to “control” the “prisoners”? Perhaps the results of the experiment were unusual, an outlier. Or perhaps they apply only to prison employees — in which case we have a problem, but not with the attorney-client relationship.

The Stanford Prison Experiment should give us pause. We ought to use the results as a starting point for important conversations about how obstacles to effective lawyers for criminal defendants exist today. Public defenders are over-worked and under-resourced. We are accustomed to having that conversation. But perhaps there are even more insidious factors at play. The students who were playing the role of prison guard knew, to a certainty, that the participants were playing prisoners were not actually guilty of any crime. Now imagine the mentality of a criminal defense lawyer who has seen criminal defendants repeatedly plead guilty to charges. Imagine also that this criminal defense lawyer represents mainly in the indigent defendants, and is more often than not face with a situation in which resources for investigating the charges are scarce or nonexistent, making discovery of shoddy police work. mistaken identity, or mitigating factors difficult to discern. What happens to the presumption of innocence in the eyes of the one person who is appointed to fight for the rights of that defendant? If criminal defense lawyers struggle to overcome the biasing factors that can influence their attitudes about their clients, they can hardly be blamed. As Zimbardo and his colleagues taught us several decades ago, this is only human.


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