Social Psychology Theories in “The Experiment”

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Human relationships in society are predetermined by various factors, including their mental health, education level, personal experience, and attitudes. Social psychology aims at studying and analyzing these interactions to promote well-being and stability. However, each theory or hypothesis in this field is based on specific experiments and observations that touch upon ethical issues and health. As a result, concerns and debates occur around almost every research that requires human subjects. In this paper, three psychological findings, namely attribution theory, self-perception theory, and self-affirmation theory, will be discussed to understand characters’ behaviors in The Experiment directed by Paul T. Scheuring in 2010. Based on the chosen theories, a reflection on the case within the prison system will be offered to define which interventions might prevent negative outcomes. The evaluation of Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment through attribution, self-perception, and self-affirmation theories will explain the nature of prison abuse and improve informed policies in human research and the chosen context.

Theories and Findings

The Experiment documents the conditions and results of the Stanford experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. This American psychologist studied human behaviors and people’s understanding of obedience to authority in different social situations. He is also known for the choice of ethically questionable methods and approaches in his studies. Although his goals were to measure the effects of role-playing and power and understand the labels in society, his experiment proved that mistreatment of prisoners has more serious outcomes. In the movie, the two sides were properly identified: those who believe that “justice is what keeps us safe as a society” and those who think that “justice is what starts wars” (Scheuring, 2010). Zimbardo developed a hypothesis that the military environment was a complex setting where human behaviors undergo multiple changes, neglecting and following the law at the same time. The end of the experiment (unpredictable behaviors and the death of one participant) requires additional investigation and analysis.

The approach when randomly chosen people had to perform the roles of prisoners and their guards provoked controversies. People who participated in the study did not understand why it was impossible to stop the experiment even if they asked for termination. Some participants did not want to quit as they were promised a certain sum of money. Besides, it was underlined that a financial benefit was the main reason for their agreement. Attention is paid to the situations when participants know nothing about the experiment’s nature and have to follow the orders of the authority, regardless of true causes and actual consequences.

Three theories have to be identified to learn better about the case and its potential application in prison. Attribution theory was introduced by Fritz Heider in the middle of the 1900s to demonstrate how people explain others’ behaviors (Myers & Twenge, 2017). There is a tendency to establish attributes of human actions, either dispositional (internal causes) or situational (external causes). Despite the intention to make reasonable attributions, the possibility of the fundamental attribution error cannot be ignored. People usually rely on their personal traits (dispositional attributes) instead of correctly analyzing a situation. In the movie, the guards have to make sure that prisoners receive food, do not touch guards, and listen to them. If one of the rules is not followed, a red light comes on, and the experiment is over, with no financial gains. The participants were obsessed with their personal traits (sexual needs, domination, and order) instead of evaluating an overall situation and its purpose.

Another important theory to understand Stanford’s prison experiment was offered by Daryl Bem in 1972. The theorist suggested that people observe their behaviors and, when their attitudes are weak, make inferences from the point of view of other people and circumstances (Myers & Twenge, 2017). It is the main idea of self-perception theory, which proves that individuals who are unsure of their attitudes (low self-esteem or fears) can analyze their behaviors by looking at themselves. In the movie, the guards constantly look at the red light to define if their actions are right or wrong. They did not worry about the consequences for other people (when a prisoner needs medications or does not want to eat bad food). Guards rejected all human qualities and trusted the red light as the best proof of their correct decision-making. They believed that they did right by following orders and considered the prisoners’ disobedience as something that could negatively influence the experiment.

Self-affirmation theory, developed by Claude Steele in 1988, helps learn human behaviors in the experiment. Its essence is that people try to compensate for a self-image threat due to engaging in an undesirable situation by affirming other aspects of the self (Myers & Twenge, 2017). Self-affirmation is a chance for individuals to protect their self-worth under different conditions. People explain their behaviors as the intention to find the approval of their decisions. In The Experiment, this theory shows that guards tried to compensate for their negative images by underlining their roles and tasks given by the authority. They punished prisoners in case of their misbehavior or unwillingness to complete the tasks. For example, Travis refused to eat some food, explaining that “It literally might be dog shit,” and one of the guards underlined that “we got rules, okay” (Scheuring, 2010). The guards did not want to try the quality of food but used the explanation that that requirement was a part of the experiment. Such attitudes resulted in new conflicts and public humiliation of some characters.

All these theories play an important role in understanding the events documented in The Experiment and the behaviors of the participants. In the majority of cases, people made their choices without thinking about the consequences of their words or actions. However, some participants could recognize their options, e.g., when one of the participants, a “guard” Bosch, tried to assist a “prisoner” and find his medications. He understood that the experiment was just a part of life, and some issues like health, human freedoms, or dignity cannot be neglected. The main lesson of the movie and the chosen theories is that people must recognize their responsibilities but also have to remember the quality of human relationships, respect, and personal evaluation of a situation.


Based on the theories and movie examples, human actions can apply to prisoners and correctional officers. There are many reasons for imprisonment, and it could happen that innocent people suffered because of poorly investigated cases. At the same time, the American prison system is developed in the way that all people have to be treated with dignity and respect. The Experiment shows that “unreal” prison conditions do not meet the necessary expectations and standards, and it is important to make improvements and implement observations. Each prison has its unique system of communication and cooperation between prisoners and guards. Michael Barris showed how despotic and cruel people could be due to unfair (dominating) treatment in their lives. The cases of night abduction, beating, shaving, sexual abuse, and even humiliated urination happens in prison anonymously and cannot be proved or appealed because of evidence lack.

Social or psychological theorists develop their ideas to improve the current prison system. According to attribution theory, people analyze their behaviors and avoid attribution errors when focusing on a person instead of recognizing the whole situation (Myers & Twenge, 2017). It is wrong to judge Barris or Chase (who wanted to rape a prisoner) but to look at the situation in general. The mistakes of the experimenters include failure to learn the psychological or social history of participants. Based on the self-perception theory that “unnecessary rewards can have a hidden cost”, changes in the representation of the roles of the guards and prisoners are required (Myers & Twenge, 2017, p. 148). Prisoners did not understand what they should do and what actions could lead to punishment. They just knew that after the experiment they got $14,000. Self-affirmation theory clarifies the behaviors of some characters who compensated for their needs in a specific situation. A professional psychological assessment of all participants, payment changes, and the termination of the experiment as soon as the first humiliation of human rights and freedoms occurred are the possible interventions to prevent the events in the movie.


To sum up the effectiveness of attribution, self-perception, and self-affirmation theories in the analysis of the prison system, one should admit the role of human attitudes toward their behaviors. The Experiment’s context is not simple because it raises a number of complex issues like human freedoms, respect in relationships, cooperation, and decision-making. Every day, people have to complete certain tasks, follow social norms, and enhance their personal and professional development. Sometimes, it is hard for an individual to choose the right direction, and the application of the offered social psychology theories is the necessary step to obtain support. The establishment of self-images, understanding of needs, and learning situations help people, but these peculiarities have to be properly presented and explained by professionals.


Scheuring, P. T. (2010). The experiment [Film]. Stage 6 Films.

Myers, D., & Twenge, J. (2017). Social psychology (12th ed.). McGraw-Hill Publishing.

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PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Social Psychology Theories in "The Experiment"." July 14, 2022.

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PsychologyWriting. "Social Psychology Theories in "The Experiment"." July 14, 2022.