The film Das Experiment (the experiment) was based on the events of an actual psychology experiment gone very wrong at Stanford University in the early 1970’s. It was one of the most controversial psychological experiments ever done in the USA. The end result was so shocking, that the leading psychologist asked it never be repeated again after he had to prematurely end the study.
Over 70 college students replied to an ad in a local newspaper calling for volunteers in a study of the psychological effects of prison life. Each applicant went through a series of interviews and personality tests to eliminate those with psychological problems, medical disabilities or a history of crime/ drug abuse. At the end 24 college students from the U.S. and Canada remained. They were awarded $15 a day to participate in the study.
Half were randomly assigned to be guards, the other to be prisoners. Each volunteer who was chosen to be a prisoner was surprised by being arrested at their home and taken down the police station. They were blindfolded and waited to be transported to the “prison.” The Stanford Psychology Department was transformed into a mock prison. Cells were set up with no clocks or windows. All areas were bugged and an intercom system was set up for announcements.
The “prisoners” were brought to the facility to be searched and stripped. This was to humiliate the prisoner and to make sure there would be no contamination of the area. They were issued a uniform of an numbered smock with no undergarments. On each prisoner a heavy chain was bolted around their right ankle to be worn the entire time.
A traditional prison would generally not take such measures as a chin on the ankle or a smock but the goal of the Stanford experiment was to crate a prison atmosphere as quickly as possible with only 24 volunteers. The chain was to constantly remind the prisoner where they were and the smock was used to make them feel humiliated and emasculated as an actual prisoner would. The ID number was to make them feel anonymous and a stocking cap was worn to simulate the shaving of a prisoner’s hair.
The volunteers put in the place of the prison guard received no training on how to act or how to treat the prisoners. They wore matching khaki uniforms, carried a whistle and Billy club. They were also outfitted with aviator sunglasses, these were mirrored and one could not see your eyes when wearing them. This idea was taken from the film concept of the “cool” State Trooper in Cool Hand Luke.