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July 11, 2011 1:05 PM   Subscribe

The participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment are revisited 40 years after their experience.
posted by reenum (57 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
I wonder if Stanford's Alumni board ever placed the participants on some kind of "Do Not Call" list for soliciting donations....

....because I'd imagine there'd be a lot of profanity if somebody from Stanford contacted them asking for money.

And, if so, can I participate in an inhumane psychological experiment to get my name off of that list, and $210?
posted by schmod at 1:13 PM on July 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


Best experiment ever! It's a shame that Zimbardo's follow-up study never got funding. He was going to put a bunch of pre-teens on an island and make them hunt for pigs.
posted by diogenes at 1:16 PM on July 11, 2011 [33 favorites]


Standford Prison Experiment Documentary (29 mins.)
posted by lemuring at 1:20 PM on July 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


Recently, someone was explaining to how they took a random handful of people in their department and put them in charge of their co-workers, including performance evaluations which can include disciplinary conversations, for the duration of a project.

I thought about this for a minute and asked, "So you're reenacting the Stanford Prison Experiment? How's that working out for you?"

They were not amused. And after the project went predictably poorly, neither was their boss.
posted by quin at 1:31 PM on July 11, 2011 [41 favorites]


This is fascinating, especially the (somewhat self-serving?) Eshelman interpretation of events. It makes me wonder how he thought it was ethical to inflict that pain even if it was only a dramatic role for him. Indeed, the thing that's most fascinating is that he apparently views pretending to be a sadist before the stress starts and inflicting pain during the experiment on people who had not made a knowing choice about that as less "My God, this guy's a psycho" (as Eshelman terms people's reactions) than being swept along in the heat of the moment.
posted by jaduncan at 1:31 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


The main problem with the Stanford Prison Experiment is that they didn't film it and sell the rights to a television network.
posted by perhapses at 1:36 PM on July 11, 2011 [3 favorites]




Recently, someone was explaining to how they took a random handful of people in their department and put them in charge of their co-workers, including performance evaluations which can include disciplinary conversations, for the duration of a project.


Jesus Christ am I ever glad I'm in a union.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:37 PM on July 11, 2011 [20 favorites]


As a high school student, I saw the documentary lemuring links to; also, my textbook's interpretation was highly exculpatory of Zimbardo and laid the blame at the feet of the college kids. It was interesting to see other perspectives, though like jaduncan I was distinctly put off my Eshelman's self-serving account.
posted by a small part of the world at 1:39 PM on July 11, 2011


Metafilter: a bunch of pre-teens on an island, hunting for pigs.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:43 PM on July 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


I've always wondered how much of the experiment's outcome had to do with Philip Zimbardo's suspicious resemblance to a certain Dark Lord.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:44 PM on July 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


Took a Pysch 1 lecture course from Zimbo when I was an undergrad. He seemed inordinately proud of the experiment and made sure we all knew it.
posted by blucevalo at 1:45 PM on July 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


Where would reality TV be without the Stanford Prison Experiment?
posted by benzenedream at 1:51 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


What is it with Palo Alto and these weird manipulative psycho-social roleplay experiments?
posted by chicxulub at 1:52 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Want to try that one again, chicxulub?
posted by Navelgazer at 1:53 PM on July 11, 2011


This episode of Radiolab recalls a similar experiment which had pretty much the worst outcome you could imagine. For the best impact, I suggest not reading any of the comments before listening.
posted by griphus at 1:55 PM on July 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


Um, yes.... thank you. Intended link here.
posted by chicxulub at 1:56 PM on July 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


...come to think of it, the Radiolab experiment was absolutely nothing like the Stanford one. Carry on.
posted by griphus at 1:57 PM on July 11, 2011


If you're interested in any more of the day by day experiences of the SPE, Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect has lots more detail, as well as some of these different insights from participants. I particularly like the phrasing of many poor outcomes being the result of bad barrels vs. just bad apples. From an educator's standpoint, this is about the best kind of study you can mention in a social psych course. It's edgy, raises ethical issues, raises experimental design issues, turned out differently than expected, based on real life concerns, makes people do the whole "but I'd never do that!" response, etc.

Most recently he's moved in sort of the opposite direction and has become interested in what leads people to do the good thing, with the expectation that it's just as situationally influenced as the bad thing might be.
posted by bizzyb at 2:00 PM on July 11, 2011 [8 favorites]


Jesus Christ am I ever glad I'm in a union.

Oh no, that's next door, it's being hit on the head lessons in here.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 2:15 PM on July 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


For an in-depth description and analysis of the experiment -- and a survey of more recent, similar experiments -- I recommend Zimbardo's book, "The Lucifer Effect."
posted by grumblebee at 2:22 PM on July 11, 2011


Zimbardo's TedTalk selling his The Lucifer Effect. He makes some reasonable points, but he still comes off as a douche. A lucifer-lookalike douche.
posted by kneecapped at 2:23 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


This episode of Radiolab: HOLY FUCK
posted by TWinbrook8 at 2:29 PM on July 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


Zimbardo's TedTalk selling his The Lucifer Effect. He makes some reasonable points, but he still comes off as a douche. A lucifer-lookalike douche.

From what I can gather, he's just sort of a media darling, or just really really likes public appearances and feels at home on that sort of stage. He's also consistently like this, whether it's for the larger public or at a psychology conference. He may in fact actually be a douche, as I'm not claiming to know him personally, but he doesn't have that sort of reputation floating around (as some others do) within the field.

My students like to think of him like a character, instead of so seriously as a person. Apparently they aren't alone: Zimbardo is my homeboy on Facebook.
posted by bizzyb at 2:38 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think I saw that documentary in high school too...I don't remember anything about it being Zimbardo's girlfriend (now wife) who said "um hey maybe this is a bad idea."
If we had not been dating before then, if he were just another faculty member and this happened, I might have said, "I'm sorry, I'm out of here" and just left. But because this was someone I was growing to like a lot, I thought that I had to figure this out. So I kept at it.
For some reason I find that intriguing.
posted by epersonae at 2:39 PM on July 11, 2011


Eshelman owns a Mortgage house? Ya don't say...


I'm sure there are good Mortgage people, but I've personally met very few. Considering I use to do contract SW dev for a Mortgage house. </axegrind>
posted by The Power Nap at 2:43 PM on July 11, 2011


I've always thought this was overblown. Has anybody ever reproduced his findings?
posted by empath at 3:00 PM on July 11, 2011


I wonder why the BBC producers responsible for lemuring's link went with Boards of Canada for the music. Huh.

empath- My understanding is that the experiment is most notable in that it resulted in changes to ethics guidelines in research, which would make it difficult to replicate the experiment at a university today.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:15 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


The author of chicxulub's link is basically claiming to have reproduced the findings. It's not exactly a controlled experiment, but it definitely seems to support the initial work. In a big, scary way.
posted by Stagger Lee at 3:23 PM on July 11, 2011


I've always thought this was overblown. Has anybody ever reproduced his findings?

Yes.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:25 PM on July 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


I've not ever listened to Radiolab, but is finishing each other's sentences and mixing the voice-overs with the recording sorta their schtick? I find it very hard to follow.
posted by humboldt32 at 3:30 PM on July 11, 2011


empath - No one is able to replicate the experiment because ethical guidelines dictate that you cannot inflict psychological abuse on experiment subjects. For example, the participants must always be fully aware of their right to leave at all times.

It's interesting that Zimbardo et al believe that because their conclusion is basically 'it could happen to anyone' absolves them of responsibility. I can't help but feel that the second, cynical guard is right to suggest that he was fulfilling his own prophecy.

There was a UK reality TV programme that took inspiration from the experiment (the name escapes me). Obv it was diluted ethically, and the results were that the prisoners took the opportunity to rebel frequently. I wonder if the guards were anxious to not be the bad guys.
posted by dumdidumdum at 3:38 PM on July 11, 2011


I've always thought this was overblown. Has anybody ever reproduced his findings?

Yes.


That's the story the Bush administration likes to tell, anyway. Just a few bad apples in a crazy situation, instead of people following the example of CIA trained torturers, torturing under the direct orders of the Secretary of Defense and President.
posted by empath at 3:39 PM on July 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


There was also a 1981 TV movie version of the story chicxulub links to.
posted by liketitanic at 3:40 PM on July 11, 2011


Aha! Found the BBC show based on the experiment. It's called, fittingly, The Experiment.
posted by dumdidumdum at 3:41 PM on July 11, 2011


That's the story the Bush administration likes to tell, anyway. Just a few bad apples in a crazy situation, instead of people following the example of CIA trained torturers, torturing under the direct orders of the Secretary of Defense and President.

Er, that's not what the Stanford Prison Experiment showed. To wit.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:46 PM on July 11, 2011


Stanford Prison Experiment showed

The Stanford Prison Experiment didn't show anything. It suggested, at best. It was unethical, poorly designed, never completed, there were no control groups, and its results have never been replicated (as far as I know).
posted by empath at 4:01 PM on July 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


"half the study's participants endured cruel and dehumanizing abuse at the hands of their peers."

Sounds like certain frat house initiations.
posted by binturong at 4:12 PM on July 11, 2011


The name Zimbardo always made me think of a zombie game show host. Which is oddly fitting, if you think about it.

"Aaaaaand now, introducing, your host, the star of our show.... PHIIIIIIL ZIM-BARRRRR-DOOOOOO!"
posted by Afroblanco at 4:13 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


The main problem with the Stanford Prison Experiment is that they didn't film it and sell the rights to a television network.

One better. It's been made into a movie. Twice. Das Experiment and The Experiment.

Amusingly, Das Experiment has a "totally not based on real life, we swear" disclaimer at the beginning. Also, seriously the most disturbing movie I've ever seen. I got home and had to drink a cup of tea to calm down.
posted by hoyland at 4:14 PM on July 11, 2011


Wait... misread the original comment. That was about reality television. Oops.
posted by hoyland at 4:15 PM on July 11, 2011


But I agree with you about Das Experiment, hoyland! I went downstairs and had a soul-cleansing glass of whiskey, myself.
posted by Because at 4:23 PM on July 11, 2011


From the wiki: In The Stanford Prison Study video Zimbardo is seen telling the guards, "You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they'll have no privacy... We're going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we'll have all the power and they'll have none."[4]

Ick. Ick ick ick. Ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick
posted by 3FLryan at 5:04 PM on July 11, 2011


there were no control groups

Control groups aren't actually needed in all studies to show an effect; it really depends on what you're trying to study and how you need to do it. In this case, it was the idea that putting someone in a role would then lead to their behaving like that role -- that it wasn't their innate personality that led to that. The volunteers were randomly assigned to the guard or prisoner roles, but beyond that, personality measures didn't suggest major preexisting differences between the two sets. How would you have a control group for roles? Tell someone they're a prisoner but don't have a guard over them...are they then really playing the role of prisoner? I do think you could have confederates play the roles of one or the other to standardize things a bit, but that doesn't vacate any useful ideas coming from this early study.

Replications of this exact study are fairly sparse due to ethical issues, but there are many studies where putting people into roles leads them to act more according to their stereotypes of what those roles will be. There are also studies that show that devaluing a person leads us to think that they deserve lesser treatment, and others that show we treat people worse when we dehumanize people (by giving them numbers vs names) or when we're hidden (like behind masks) from showing our faces. Many of the pieces have support.

I don't think anyone is claiming that this study was the be-all and end-all of behavioral research. But it brought up an interesting suggestion that the situation can lead people to behave in ways that we typically attribute to the individual.
posted by bizzyb at 5:14 PM on July 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


Ick? You can do better than that.
posted by jonmc at 5:17 PM on July 11, 2011


Ick? You can do better than that.

Not while I'm vomiting AND hyperventilating.
posted by 3FLryan at 5:18 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


The SPE basically showed that quite a large proportion of Stanford college students are capable of bifurcating into empathy-free roleplayers and masochistic personalities. Depending on your perspective, this may or may not come as a surprise.
posted by meehawl at 5:22 PM on July 11, 2011


This is fascinating, especially the (somewhat self-serving?) Eshelman interpretation of events. It makes me wonder how he thought it was ethical to inflict that pain even if it was only a dramatic role for him.

I'm not surprised to hear that this was, in large part, playing up to the experimenters' expectations for drama. That's not to say Eshelman didn't also have sadistic tendencies, and didn't exploit the situation to fulfill them. But those two factors -- reactivity to experimenter desires, and use of the situation for personal pleasure, seem by far to trump any notion that the "roles" and the situations themselves made people bad.

These guards were prompted to act in a cruel way, and the prisoners were told they could not leave, so of course they felt like actual prisoners... so all the extrapolation to the real life effect of mere roles seems way overblown.
posted by shivohum at 5:41 PM on July 11, 2011


Why do so many people assume that because the study was unethical it is therefore invalid? To me, one does not preclude the other.
posted by Vindaloo at 5:50 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


How would you have a control group for roles?

A placebo isn't the same as a control group. You repeat the test multiple times with different definitions for the roles that assign more or less power to the participants. You do personality tests before the tests to make sure that you don't get people that are going to showboat.

I mean, just read the interviews, the most abusive guard says that he didn't take it seriously and treated it as an acting job, one of the other guys was high the whole time.

I can't believe that any people who believe in the scientific method take this 'experiment' remotely seriously. It's a joke.
posted by empath at 6:08 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ahh, gotcha. Generally with control in lots of studies people mean it as "none of it" for some variable. They did actually do personality tests beforehand -- lots of them, but that rarely gets brought into the brief descriptions. It's in the Lucifer Effect though, if you're interested. The book also addresses what it means to be play-acting in a role (like the abusive guard) and how that influences the interpretation.
posted by bizzyb at 7:52 PM on July 11, 2011


I mean, just read the interviews, the most abusive guard says that he didn't take it seriously and treated it as an acting job, one of the other guys was high the whole time.

I'm not sure this changes anything. The abusive guard saw it as a job, performed as well as he could, got so into it that he his fake prisoners' unmistakably real suffering didn't register at the time. You can say that in real life, well, this particular guy wouldn't deliberately Method act his way through a prison gig or a Nazi takeover or anything like that, but in real life, in a large enough sample, you'd have somebody who might do this out of malice or sociopathy, and meet with the same response: "I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, 'How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, "knock it off"?' But the other guards didn't stop me. They seemed to join in. They were taking my lead. Not a single guard said, 'I don't think we should do this.'"

"When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, my first reaction was, this is so familiar to me. I knew exactly what was going on," he says.

Another guy was high the whole time; well, sometimes, out in the world, people are high at their jobs. I do think it's interesting that this is the only guy interviewed -- the high one, the one who'd wanted to be a prisoner instead because French border guards had caught him with drugs and threatened him once, and he wanted to work through it -- who doesn't think the study really did what Limbardo said it did. I'm not sure about that; his complaints seem to be that Limbardo rigged the study by calling for forced sleep deprivation and solitary confinement and generally making things unnecessarily tense. But why shouldn't he? This is a test in itself: bad orders are issued. Did the high guy do or say anything about it? No. He felt bad for the prisoners, he wanted to share his joints with them, but he didn't do anything.
posted by Adventurer at 9:31 PM on July 11, 2011


At one point I was in a union working on a loading dock with a bunch of other fellas. Good times were had and it was pretty cool, if you don't mind repetitious physical labor. At one point one of the supervisors thought I would be good in a supervisory position, or maybe they like me enough they wanted to keep me from fucking up any more freight transport. So, I was promoted. No big deal and the some of the guys gave me a hard time about it. They probably felt a bit more free to mess with me because they knew me well enough that they felt they could, which was fine and I tried to grin and bear it as much as I could. Except when it became a bit excessive and it seemed like the jokes were missing a beat or were a bit cruel. Not that it was overly dangerous or anything like that and I know what it feels like to be singled out and picked on as most people do. But there didn't seem to be an endpoint, ya know?

Anyway, after I read through the Stanford Experiment, watched a few films about it and tried to gather what it was all about from different viewpoints, two things occurred to me:
The first is that Zimbardo pretty much directly told the "guards" to abuse the "prisoners". Which kind of blows the whole premise of the experiment out of the water to begin with.
Second, the Standford Experiment always reminds me of that story I related above. "Joking around" does not necessarily mean you are actually being funny but it also doesn't mean you have some inherent evil lurking inside.

The moral of the story and the "Experiment" is: Always include a punchline, because making a perpetual joke without one only adds up to you being an incessant asshole.
posted by P.o.B. at 11:16 PM on July 11, 2011


The participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment are revisited 40 years after their experience.

Wow. Smoking pot used to be REALLY bad in California.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:06 AM on July 12, 2011


Forty years later, the Stanford Prison Experiment remains among the most notable—and notorious—research projects ever carried out at the University.
FTFTFA.
posted by knile at 5:11 AM on July 12, 2011


But as a result of the prison study, I really became more aware of the central role of power in our lives. I became more aware of the power I have as a teacher. I started consciously doing things to minimize the negative use of power in the classroom. I encouraged students to challenge me.

This made me laugh. Teachers abuse their power so so so so often, and I see it on a wide scale because I visit a new K-12 classroom almost every single day. I am constantly disgusted at the way teachers treat students when they think no other adult can see them, or if they think that you as a teacher are of like mind. Everything from unreasonable restrictions on bathroom use, arbitrary punishments regarding fidgeting behavior, shaming girls for not behaving "like girls" or whatever.

And the thing is, you *do* find yourself, in the school system, participating in rules and punishments that you DO NOT SUPPORT and think are unfair and even bad for kids' psyches. And it's not a very slow creep until you start catching yourself doing exactly the things you found disgusting a month ago. Shaming kids for not eating all the crappy food at lunch. Or belittling someone for wearing a hat when it's against the rules.

Every time someone laughs at me for comparing schools to prisons, I wish they could see what I see every day.
posted by RedEmma at 9:00 AM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


After seeing Das Experiment, all I could say was "What the fuck is wrong with German people?" Of course, realizing it was based on an actual event (no matter what they said otherwise) made me say "What the fuck is wrong with Americans?"
posted by cereselle at 9:37 AM on July 12, 2011


Oh gosh, yeah, that episode of Radiolab creeped me the hell out. Partly because the relevant story ended with me going, "Wait...him? Because of that? Oh, fuck" ...and partly because the overall tone of the show is otherwise going for "zany" with the overdubbed laughter and I had a flashback to that scene in Natural Born Killers where the Dangerfield sitcom is playing and NO THANK YOU EVER AGAIN, AMERICA OR ANYONE.

I've not ever listened to Radiolab, but is finishing each other's sentences and mixing the voice-overs with the recording sorta their schtick? I find it very hard to follow.

It's totally their schtick. Some people love it, I've grown tolerant of it, but "overproduced" is a word that comes to mind often.

posted by psoas at 9:36 AM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


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