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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
Shocking experiment recreated for TV
The Experiment
The group were divided into guards and prisoners
One of the most controversial and shocking psychological experiments ever carried out has been recreated for a BBC One programme, The Experiment, which goes out on Tuesday.

The Stanford project of 1971 saw a group of men volunteer for an unknown experiment which was to see them turned into either prisoners or prison guards.

But the experiment did not go to plan and Stanford Professor Philip Zimbardo, who was in charge of the project, called it off after evidence emerged that the guards were becoming violent towards the ever more submissive prisoners.

The conclusion that was borne out was that stripped of their individual identities the prisoners would become passive while the guards would exercise their power to the extreme.

The way people reacted was quite surprising and may change the academic arguments surrounding this type of experiment

Alex Holme
Because of the potentially dangerous outcome the direction the Stanford Experiment was going in it was terminated just six days into the two-week run.

So naturally there were raised eyebrows when the BBC said they would be recreating their own version for a TV show called The Experiment to test social dynamics, power and rebellion.

Professor Zombardo himself has recently said that the research he carried out in the 70s would now be considered unethical.

The more extreme violence of the Stanford experiment, described as "degrading and pornographic", took place while the guards thought they were not being filmed.

Ian Burnett
Ian Burnett replied to a newspaper advert asking for volunteers
To ensure this could not happen in the new regime a vast army of cameras was installed in the prison environment, which was mocked up in a studio in Elstree.

Creative director of the programme, Alex Holmes, said there were significant differences between the test carried out in 1971 and the modern one.

He said the most significant difference was that Professor Zombardo and his team were more interventionist in their approach, getting involved in the scenario and ultimately getting too caught up.


"We wanted to see if those with the power would turn towards tyranny, as in the original experiment, but we found it to be the opposite," said Mr Holmes.

"The guards did not want to adopt their roles. They felt uncomfortable and this made them ineffective, whereas the prisoners were a more unified group."

In fact, the prisoners became such a tight team they staged a break out and wanted to form a commune.

But having found their freedom they had no leader and fell into a "power vacuum" which Mr Holmes said the participants found difficult and ultimately some wanted to set up a tyrannical "society" to restore order back.

"The way people reacted was quite surprising and may change the academic arguments surrounding this type of experiment," said Mr Holmes.

With the advent of reality TV it is easy to be cynical about the motive behind the BBC staging the experiment.

Battery of tests

But the creative team is adamant it was more about the scientific approach and result of the experiment than the need for entertainment.

Participants who replied to a newspaper advert were put through a battery of tests to weed out those with violent or unstable tendencies.

But like the Stanford Experiment, the BBC project also had to be halted early.

Learning from the previous experience, the show's collaborators put a stop to the research to prevent a situation getting out of hand.

The project was filmed at studios in Elstree
Ian Burnett was one of the participants who put himself forward of the project.

The 22-year-old was not told what the actual experiment was but he had guessed it could be a prison scenario. He was warned by friends who had heard of the Stanford situation not to take part.

But he perservered and was taken to the studio blindfolded so he had no idea where he was or what he would be doing.

It was not until he was inside that he was told he was to become a prisoner.


After four days he was promoted to guard status, leaving behind the structured day of imprisonment to become responsible for the well-being and incarceration of the prisoners.

"It was much harder to be a guard than a prisoner because it was difficult maintaining discipline and it was hard to force people to do anything because they did not listen," said Mr Burnett.

"If you were a prisoner you did chores for two hours, exercised and had leisure time but the rest of it you could just sleep if you wanted."

The technical supervisor believes he has come out of The Experiment relatively mentally unscathed and does not believe he will need to take advantage of the counselling offered.

"It will become clear from the first programme why it was stopped early and who it was down to," he added.

"The producers played it very well in stopping it early."

See also:

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Reality TV show scrapped
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Reality TV under fire
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US reality TV turns deadly
20 May 01 | TV and Radio
Loft Story under siege
30 Apr 01 | TV and Radio
French Big Brother faces censors
24 Apr 01 | TV and Radio
Big Brother contestants muzzled
16 Nov 00 | Entertainment
Life with Big Brother
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