The Experiment

The Experiment

"The Experiment" was a documentary series broadcast on BBC television in 2002. It presented the findings of what subsequently became known as The BBC Prison Study (Reicher & Haslam, 2006)


The genesis of the programme was the 1971 Stanford prison experiment carried out by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University, in which a group of students were recruited to perform the roles of 'prisoner' and 'guard' as a psychological experiment to test how human beings conform to roles. That study was brought to a premature end as a result of the extreme brutality displayed by guards towards prisoners. This itself was related to the Milgram experiment at Yale University in 1963.

The BBC Experiment was led by psychologists Professor Alex Haslam (University of Exeter) and Professor Steve Reicher (University of St Andrews) who planned and designed the psychological experiment with the series' executive producer Nick Mirsky and producer Gaby Koppel of the BBC. At the time, Reicher was editor of the "British Journal of Social Psychology" and Haslam was editor-elect of the "European Journal of Social Psychology".

Ethical considerations

Before "The Experiment" could proceed, the researchers had to secure formal ethical approval from the University of Exeter. This approval was conditional on the BBC putting in place a range of safeguards to protect against psychological damage to the participants. Key safeguards included:

(1) Screening of participants by clinical psychologists, together with medical and police checks.

(2) Round-the-clock monitoring by clinical psychologists, medics and security personnel.

(3) The creation of a six-person Ethics Committee, chaired by Lembit Öpik MP. Members of this Committee included Dr Stephen Smith of the Beth Shalom Centre, and Steven Taylor, a prison reform campaigner. This committee was given the power to stop "The Experiment" at any time if a majority of the six members felt that participants were coming to psychological or other harm. This was the first time that the BBC had given such power to an external, independent body. This power was used when "The Experiment" was brought to an end two days earlier than planned, after consultation with Haslam and Reicher.

Production, broadcast and content

Filmed at Elstree Studios in December 2001, the four one-hour programmes were broadcast on 14th, 15th, 21st and 22nd May 2002. The four episodes dealt sequentially with each of the main phases of the study: Conflict, Order, Rebellion and Tyranny.


The findings of the study were very different from those of the Stanford Prison Experiment. In particular, (a) there was no evidence of guards conforming 'naturally' to role, and (b) in response to manipulations that served to increase a sense of shared identity amongst the prisoners, over time, they demonstrated increased resistance to the guards' regime. This culminated in a prison breakout on Day 6 of the study that made the regime unworkable. After this, the participants created a 'self-governing commune' but this too collapsed due to internal tensions created by those who had organized the earlier breakout. After this, a group of former prisoners and guards conspired to install a new prisoner-guard regime in which they would be the "new guards". Now, however, they wanted to run the system along much harsher lines — akin to those seen in the Stanford study. Signs that this would compromise the well-being of participants led to early termination of the study.


The series courted controversy, and was criticised by Philip Zimbardo who said that his original experiment did not need repeating. He also claimed that "The Experiment" was simply reality television and that it had no scientific base or value, as participants would be playing for the cameras and not acting "normally" (Zimbardo, 2006). In turn, Haslam and Reicher have responded that their goal was not to replicate the Stanford study, but rather to expose limitations in Zimbardo's own theorizing and method. In particular, they sought to demonstrate that internalized group membership could be a basis for "resistance" as well as tyranny. This prediction was derived from social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and the study incorporated manipulations designed to test some of its core hypotheses.

Haslam and Reicher also argue that Zimbardo's own findings in the Stanford study arose from the leadership role that he had assumed as Prison superintendent — explicitly encouraging the guards to demean the prisoners (see Banyard, 2007). Accordingly, in their study, Haslam and Reicher had no formal role within the prison. They also took non-reactive psychometric and physiological measures to back up and triangulate their behavioural observations and address concerns that the processes observed in the study were somehow 'unreal'.

Zimbardo's (2006) final criticism is that the findings of the BBC study lacked external validity, since prisoner domination of guards is not observed "anywhere in the known universe". Haslam and Reicher have countered that the purpose of their study was to demonstrate the theoretical possibility of resistance, noting that this is a feature of most social systems in which tyranny prevails (e.g., as argued by Michel Foucault). They also observe that the imprisonment of leaders is often important for the development of resistance movements and for processes of social change. Notable recent cases include Robben Island and Maze (HM Prison) where it was ultimately the prisoners who ran the prisons, not the guards. The stress observed among guards in the BBC study (see Haslam & Reicher, 2006) also accords with a large body of evidence from the UK and the US that prison officers are particularly prone to high levels of stress and burnout. In 2001 a major report by the US-based group Human Rights Watch also concluded that cases of prison authorities ceding control to inmates was "an all too common occurrence".

Academic output

Confounding initial criticism, findings of the BBC study were reported in scientific papers that were published in leading peer-reviewed journals. These papers addressed the dynamics of tyranny, resistance, stress and leadership. Indeed, it is possible that the study has formed the basis for more academic papers than any other single field experiment in psychology.

These papers challenged the role-based analysis forwarded by Zimbardo and served to elaborate ideas associated with a social identity approach to social, clinical and organizational psychology. One of their central arguments is that individuals only move towards tyranny once they have come to identify with a group and its leadership (in a way that Zimbardo's briefing of his guards encouraged) and once an authoritarian agenda has come to define that group's identity and to be seen as a solution to its problems.

Reflecting its contribution to ongoing debate in this area, in 2007 the BBC Prison study was included in the OCR (examination board) Psychology A-level syllabus.



• Haslam, S. A., & Reicher, S. D. (2005). The psychology of tyranny. "Scientific American Mind", "16" (3), 44–51.

• Reicher, S. D., & Haslam, S. A. (2006). Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC Prison Study. "British Journal of Social Psychology", "45", 1–40.

On tyranny and social issues

• Reicher, S. D. & Haslam, S. A. (2006). On the agency of individuals and groups: Lessons from the BBC Prison Study. In T. Postmes & J. Jetten (Eds.) "Individuality and the group: Advances in social identity" (pp.237–257). London: Sage.

• Haslam, S. A. & Reicher, S. D. (2006). Debating the psychology of tyranny: Fundamental issues of theory, perspective and science. "British Journal of Social Psychology", "45," 55–63.

• Haslam, S. A. & Reicher, S. D. (2007). Beyond the banality of evil: Three dynamics of an interactionist social psychology of tyranny. "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin", "33," 615-622.

On leadership and organizational issues

• Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A., & Hopkins, N. (2005). Social identity and the dynamics of leadership: Leaders and followers as collaborative agents in the transformation of social reality. "Leadership Quarterly", "16," 547–568.

• Haslam, S. A. & Reicher, S. D. (2007). Identity entrepreneurship and the consequences of identity failure: The dynamics of leadership in the BBC Prison Study. "Social Psychology Quarterly", "70," 125-147.

• Haslam, S. A., & Reicher, S. D. (2007). Social identity and the dynamics of organizational life: Insights from the BBC Prison Study. In C. Bartel, S. Blader, & A. Wrzesniewski (Eds.) "Identity and the modern organization" (pp.135–166). New York: Erlbaum.

On stress and clinical issues

• Reicher, S. D. & Haslam, S. A. (2006). Tyranny revisited: Groups, psychological well-being and the health of societies. "The Psychologist", "19", 46–50.

• Haslam, S. A. & Reicher, S. D. (2006). Stressing the group: Social identity and the unfolding dynamics of stress." Journal of Applied Psychology", "91", 1037–1052.


• Turner, J. C. (2006). Tyranny, freedom and social structure: Escaping our theoretical prisons. "British Journal of Social Psychology", "45", 41–46.

• Zimbardo, P. (2006). On rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC Prison Study. "British Journal of Social Psychology", "45", 47–53.

• Banyard, P. (2007). Tyranny and the tyrant. "The Psychologist", "20", 2-8.

External links

The official website of the BBC Prison Study:]

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