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National Geographic Unlocks the Truth Behind the Stanford Prison Experiment



National Geographic’s upcoming documentary series, The Stanford Prison Experiment: Unlocking the Truth, investigates the notorious and controversial study conducted by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in 1971. The three-part series, directed by Juliette Eisner and executive produced by Alex Braverman, shines a light on the experiment, the participants, and its complex legacy.

Unraveling a Noteworthy Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a psychological study designed to understand the power of situational variables and their impact on human behavior. Led by Stanford University psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the experiment involved 24 male college students who were randomly assigned the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison environment. The participants were recruited through a local newspaper advertisement and carefully screened to ensure physical and mental health stability.

The experiment, which took place in the basement of Jordan Hall, the Stanford psychology building, aimed to examine the psychological effects of authority and power dynamics in a prison setting. The “guards” were given specific instructions and uniforms to de-individuate them, while the “prisoners” were subjected to arrest procedures by actual Palo Alto police and treated as real inmates.

Ethical Concerns and Criticisms

The Stanford Prison Experiment has been the subject of ethical debates and criticisms. The treatment of the “prisoners,” which included strip searches, dehumanizing uniforms, and psychological abuse, led to concerns about the study’s methodology and potential harm to participants. Dr. Christina Maslach, who was Zimbardo’s wife, was an outside observer who encouraged him to shut down the project due to the escalating mistreatment.


Critics have also questioned the validity of the experiment’s methods, suggesting that the participants may have been predisposed to certain behaviors. Thibault Le Texier, a French researcher, asserted that Zimbardo’s instructions to the “guards” influenced their behavior and that his conclusions were written in advance. However, Zimbardo criticized Le Texier’s arguments, stating that they focused on ad hominem attacks rather than contradicting data.

Impact and Legacy

Despite the controversies, the Stanford Prison Experiment had a significant impact on psychology and our understanding of human nature. It highlighted the power of roles, rules, and situational influences on behavior. The experiment’s findings suggested that individuals could be easily led to engage in anti-social and abusive acts when placed in certain situations.

The study’s legacy can also be seen in its influence on popular culture, with the 2015 film The Stanford Prison Experiment, directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, and a 2002 documentary by Kim Duke, also titled The Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment has been referenced in various media, including books and TV shows, further emphasizing its impact on society’s exploration of human behavior and ethics.

The Stanford Prison Experiment: Unlocking the Truth takes an innovative approach by centering the stories and perspectives of the participants themselves. Many of them are speaking out for the first time, offering detailed accounts of their experiences during those six days. The series brings these individuals back together and recreates pivotal moments, allowing them to revisit their roles and reflect on the power dynamics at play.


Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.

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