When APA President Philip Zimbardo, PhD, first learned that a German director was making a movie ostensibly based on his famous Stanford Prison Experiment, he was pleased, even excited. Then a cameraman for the movie told Zimbardo that it contained violence and would upset him.

The cameraman was right. But it wasn't just the violence in "Das Experiment" that disturbed Zimbardo. It was the fact that the beatings, torture, rape and murders depicted in the movie never happened in the real experiment--nothing close ever occurred, notes Zimbardo.

Since the film's March 2001 release in Germany, the movie has picked up several domestic and international film awards. And with its recent opening in the United States, Zimbardo is concerned that it will spread a negative, misleading notion of his experiment, and of psychological science. Aside from what he views as the movie's gratuitous sex and violence, Zimbardo objects to what he considers its blurring of the line between fiction and reality and its negative portrayal of psychological research.

"What's wrong is they are masquerading the movie as a documentary of a real-life experiment with real people at Stanford University," says Zimbardo, who has been bombarded with angry e-mails about the movie from the European academic community. "It makes Stanford and me and psychology look bad. And I resent that, especially at a time when, as APA president, I am trying to work with the media to advance more positive portrayals of psychology."

Fueling the misperceptions, Zimbardo says, is the fact that movie publicity has touted a connection to the Stanford Prison Experiment. Promotional materials describe the experiment and provide a Web link (www.prisonexp.org) to it. Also, the movie as shown in Germany opened with the words "...inspired by incidents that occurred during a psychological experiment at Stanford University, Palo Alto, USA."

Stanford lawyers have since asked that the language be removed, so U.S. audiences will not see it. But the references remain in the promotional materials and the movie-makers defend their artistic license and fictionalizing of the experiment--they did so just recently at a U.S. screening of the movie.

Meanwhile, Zimbardo questions whether audiences will be able to distinguish fantasy from reality, not only in the movie but also in a new British TV show, also based on the Stanford experiment and slated to air on the BBC.

What really happened

Zimbardo is not alone in raising such doubts. "Theatrical renditions of real-life events as historical documents are always suspect," says media psychologist Stuart Fischoff, PhD, who notes that similar controversies have emerged over Oliver Stone movies and the recently released, "A Beautiful Mind," which depicts the experience of John Forbes Nash Jr., the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician who has schizophrenia.

"Generally the audience assumes that the movie is correct," says Fischoff, a professor at California State University, Los Angeles. "They get their history lessons from films and don't go back to check. So, we are cultivating a nation of people who see history through the eyes of a Panaflex movie camera." He adds, "The fact that Zimbardo didn't have input into the product itself is disturbing."

According to Zimbardo, the main input instead came from Mario Giordano's German novel "Black Box," which also claims a link to the Stanford Prison Experiment and which Giordano helped adapt for the screen. At the same time, he says, its lead actor is Moritz Bleibtreu of "Run Lola Run" fame, which adds to its public appeal, and its director is documentary-maker Oliver Hirschbiegel, which adds to its realistic appeal.

Indeed, the first half of the movie closely follows the actual events of the Stanford Experiment: Zimbardo and his research team recruited 24 paid male volunteers to take part in what was advertised as a study of prison life. The team randomly assigned half the volunteers to roles as guards and the other half to roles as prisoners and outfitted the participants accordingly--the prisoners even were deloused and made to wear gowns and shackles after their surprise arrest and booking by city police.

The researchers then observed the participants' behavior in a simulated prison environment with the goal, according to the Web site description, of addressing the following: "What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph?"

As it turned out, the guards behaved sadistically--humiliating prisoners by, for example, making them strip, clean toilets, endure fire-extinguisher spray and relieve themselves in buckets in their cells. As a result, the prisoners showed signs of demoralization, stress and depression.

But here, says Zimbardo, is where similarities between the movie and actual experiment end. Because whereas Zimbardo and his team sought to prevent problems by terminating the experiment early, after just six days instead of the intended two weeks, the movie's fictional team of researchers carry on with the experiment even as it spirals out of control. The lead researcher disappears inexplicably, the guards take over and mayhem ensues. Not only is the lead researcher's female colleague seized, stripped and raped and a prisoner urinated on, but two men are killed and several others brutally beaten.

At what point fiction?

Zimbardo had a chance to describe what really happened at a January pre-release screening of the movie in San Francisco. In turn, author Giordano and actor Bleibtreu had a chance to respond. Their defense: Their job is not to portray reality, and the audience knows that the book and movie are fiction and are different from the actual experiment.

"Did you really believe that that was reality that you saw the last 100 minutes?" Giordano asked the audience at the screening. "No. My job isn't to write a piece of science or a psychology article. I write fiction, and my job is to tell stories about people who act in such situations and to describe them as real as possible."

Giordano also notes that he listed references in his book for the Stanford experiment and others that inspired him--among them Stanley Milgram's obedience study. Besides which, he claims, his job is not to account for reality. "A writer forms his knowledge and fantasy into a story," says Giordano. "He is neither constrained to document true facts, nor to measure 'degrees' of reality."

But at the screening, Zimbardo pointed out how closely the first half of the movie mimics reality, only to shift suddenly into fantasy. "The audience doesn't know at what point this is fiction," he said. "Does anyone get raped in the Stanford Prison experiment? No. Did anybody get killed? No. Does anybody even bleed? No." Zimbardo also argued that the movie is sexist, noting for example, a sexual insult hurled at the female researcher, and he said the movie fails to explore the Stanford experiment's purpose and what it teaches about the power of social situations to influence much human behavior. Nor, he noted, is there any debriefing of the participants.

Instead, Zimbardo believes that the movie-makers capitalize on "the reality TV" aspect of the Stanford study in order to involve audiences and then titillate them with gratuitous sex and violence.

"In the movie, some crazy psychologist said, 'Let's just do this experiment,'" says Zimbardo. "There was no reason ever given of why the study was being conducted--it falls into the genre of the mad-scientist films. Incredible things are happening, and no one is in control of the study. And that just never happens in psychological research."

The U.S. distributor of "Das Experiment" is Senator International.