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Why Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment Isn’t in My Textbook
October 29, 2013 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Three months ago, Psychology Today blogger Susan Krauss Whitbourne posted an essay entitled The Rarely Told Story of Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment. I eagerly read it in the hope that it would reveal some heretofore relatively unknown truth about this famous experiment. But, in fact, the essay is simply a summary--a well written one--of the experiment that takes at face value Phillip Zimbardo’s and his colleagues’ conclusions. In the introduction to the essay, Whitbourne states that the experiment is “Depicted in movies, television and of course all introductory psych textbooks…” It’s true that Zimbardo’s experiment is one of the two or three most famous experiments in the history of psychology. But it’s not true that it’s depicted in all introductory psychology textbooks. I’m the author of one such textbook (which is now in it’s 6th edition and is used in many colleges and universities). One of the questions I’m frequently asked about the book by professors who teach from it is, “Why don’t you include Zimbardo’s prison experiment, like all other textbook authors do?”
Here’s why, the results of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment have a trivial explanation. See also, The lie of the Stanford Prison Experiment

Other criticism from a distinct but strongly related tack (Previously)
Contesting the “Nature” Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo's Studies Really Show [FULL TEXT]
Understanding of the psychology of tyranny is dominated by classic studies from the 1960s and 1970s: Milgram's research on obedience to authority and Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment. Supporting popular notions of the banality of evil, this research has been taken to show that people conform passively and unthinkingly to both the instructions and the roles that authorities provide, however malevolent these may be. Recently, though, this consensus has been challenged by empirical work informed by social identity theorizing. This suggests that individuals' willingness to follow authorities is conditional on identification with the authority in question and an associated belief that the authority is right.
Stanford Prison Experiment Previously
posted by Blasdelb (61 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why hasnt someone run an experiment like the Zimbardo's but ask the mock guards to be nice? Ethical review panels might be the reason.
posted by shothotbot at 7:10 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, the critique is interesting and probably accurate. But if it is, isn't there something independent that the results would demonstrate? Namely, that "regular" people are capable of intense evil when they are motivated to please others, or to do what they believe they are supposed to do in the circumstances? Seems intuitive, and maybe there are other studies out there that are already used in psychology textbooks to stand for that principle, but seems like just because there is a "trivial" explanation doesn't mean that the experiment stands for nothing at all.
posted by likeatoaster at 7:13 AM on October 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


I've said this before on the Blue and I feel compelled to say it again.

These very strong criticisms of SPE should not be allowed to cast a shadow on the Milgram experiments, which were extremely careful, and were repeated many times under slight variations of condition. Milgram's experiments meet a very high standard of scientific rigor (especially for psychology).

That's not to say that the original interpretation can't be challenged. But the experiments shouldn't be tarnished by their association with the prison circus.
posted by grobstein at 7:16 AM on October 29, 2013 [26 favorites]


This seems kind of like quibbling to me. The takeaway of the experiment, for me at least, is how easy it is to get people to dehumanize others and act cruelly to them. The objection seems to be "But the situation they were placed in caused them to believe that they were expected to dehumanize others and act cruelly to them!" Which, uh, OK I guess.
posted by Flunkie at 7:22 AM on October 29, 2013 [16 favorites]


I thought this comment was a really intriguing response to the main OP article: the anon. commenter suggests that flawed psychology experiments actually produce the same fascinatingly fake behavior that we now instantly recognize from "reality" tv shows.

(If there is a better use of scare quotes than around the word "reality" for these tv shows, I don't know it!)

"The claims of ex con, Carlo Prescott, are the most striking to me...if what he says is true, it definitely brings into question how much manipulation was being performed by the researchers. It suggests what we saw in the experiment was similar to the manipulation we see today on "reality" television.

With that said, I think the study still has value and can be used to introduce the idea of context and environment influencing behavior. This can still be done if you reveal all the pre-experiment/methodical details mentioned in this article.
"
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:24 AM on October 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Answer for the impatient: because the experimenters led the subjects to be abusive.
Zimbardo describes in the following terms what he told the guards at the outset of the study:
"We cannot physically abuse or torture them," I said. "We can create boredom. We can create a sense of frustration. We can create fear in them, to some degree. We can create a notion of the arbitrariness that governs their lives, which are totally controlled by us, by the system, by you, me, [Warden] Jaffe. They'll have no privacy at all, there will be constant surveillance -- nothing they do will go unobserved. They will have no freedom of action. They will be able to do nothing and say nothing that we don't permit. We're going to take away their individuality in various ways. They're going to be wearing uniforms, and at no time will anybody call them by name; they will have numbers and be called only by their numbers. In general, what all this should create in them is a sense of powerlessness. We have total power in the situation. They have none.
Is this not an overt invitation to be abusive in all sorts of psychological ways? [snip] What would have happened if Zimbardo had said to the guards, at the outset, that the purpose of the experiment was to prove that it is possible to be both a guard and a decent human being, or in some way implied that the goal was to prove that guards can be kind? I bet the results would have been entirely different.
posted by pracowity at 7:26 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


likeatoaster: “Yeah, the critique is interesting and probably accurate. But if it is, isn't there something independent that the results would demonstrate? Namely, that 'regular' people are capable of intense evil when they are motivated to please others, or to do what they believe they are supposed to do in the circumstances? Seems intuitive, and maybe there are other studies out there that are already used in psychology textbooks to stand for that principle, but seems like just because there is a 'trivial' explanation doesn't mean that the experiment stands for nothing at all.”

Indeed, that is apparently what Milgram demonstrates. And it's worth pointing out that that's pretty much Prescott's message on the matter; he is offended (I think) largely because, whereas the experiment really did demonstrate how prisons actually work by putting a bunch of people in a room and saying "now, you can be really mean to each other, brutally mean, and even psychologically torture each other, but please don't use physical violence." Of course people did what they were told they were "allowed" to do – that allowance is a tacit request, especially coming from a researcher. And similarly, in actual prisons prisoners are "allowed" to do all sorts of things, which allowance basically guarantees that those things will happen.

But Zimbardo took this and misconstrued it, acting as though it demonstrated the "Lord Of The Flies" principle that everybody has a little evil in them just itching to get out, that people will be spontaneously evil if you just give them a chance. The real-world implication here is that there is no way to run a humane prison, because anyone will become evil if they're put in a situation where the normal rules of society don't apply. It's not the fault of the prison guards for being suggestive, and it's not the fault of society for pounding into everyone's heads the notion that prisoners are evil and violent and will always do evil, violent things in prison. Prison rape is accepted and even encouraged by our society as a supposedly "fitting" sort of punishment for what we regard as particularly heinous crimes. But if Zimbardo's right, it's not our fault that prison rape happens. We as a society don't have to bear any burden for the terrible things that go on in our prisons. It's just that spontaneous human evil thing happening. We're completely absolved of all blame, and we get to feel contemplative and philosophical all the while – "gosh, isn't human evil interesting?"

That seems to be Prescott's critique, and it makes sense. If Prescott is right, then what Zimbardo really showed was that people are very suggestible, and that they will go to great lengths to please scientists and people conducting studies.

What's interesting is that the second study linked, about "What Milgram and Zimbardo's Studies Really Show," takes for granted this "alternative" reading of the Zimbardo study: that people are just very suggestible, not spontaneously evil. grobstein is right to point out that Milgram's study was radically different from Zimbardo's, particularly in terms of scientific rigor, but also (I think) in terms of how they presented themselves. I'm guessing that in the academic background for that second paper is a growing consensus that Zimbardo is valuable mostly as a relatively well-documented event, rather than as a self-understood scientific case study.
posted by koeselitz at 7:36 AM on October 29, 2013 [15 favorites]


This seems kind of like quibbling to me. The takeaway of the experiment, for me at least, is how easy it is to get people to dehumanize others and act cruelly to them. The objection seems to be "But the situation they were placed in caused them to believe that they were expected to dehumanize others and act cruelly to them!" Which, uh, OK I guess.

I think the difference is that, under the standard interpretation of the SPE, the cruelty and the response it created were real; while if everyone is acting out expected roles, there's a winking element to the whole thing, like boxers who'll hug at the end of the match because it's all just extreme play (and in comparison, in the Milgram study, the teachers genuinely believed they were administering shocks). Zimbardo himself talked about being drawn into the real-ness of the experiment when, as warden, he was informed that the students were planning and escape, and immediately declared a lockdown in the grip of anger at them.
posted by fatbird at 7:40 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


We're making you shit in a bucket now. Wink wink.

We're making you sleep on concrete now. Wink wink.

We're locking you in a closet now. Wink wink.

We're attacking you with fire extinguishers now. Wink wink.
posted by Flunkie at 7:45 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"But if it is, isn't there something independent that the results would demonstrate? Namely, that "regular" people are capable of intense evil when they are motivated to please others, or to do what they believe they are supposed to do in the circumstances?"
Its more that Zimbardo very convincingly explained to the guards how to seem to dehumanize the prisoners and how the winking make believe would result in a net benefit, while regardless of all of the structure Zimbardo imposed - both the guards and prisoners understood that under it all they were working together towards Zimbardo's common, if poorly thought out, goal. The critique is that the pretend evil that Zimbardo modeled only has a trivial relationship to real evil, even if the damage that he did to the participants was all to real.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:46 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The aura of self-satisfaction which usually accompanies mention of this experiment made me suspicious of it years ago. For a lot of people. it seems, the experiment tells them something that they like hearing.
posted by thelonius at 7:56 AM on October 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


We're attacking you with fire extinguishers now. Wink wink.

I'm punching you in the face as hard as I can. Wink wink.

We don't freak out at the level of aggression boxers display in the ring because we know it's, in an important sense, fake just because it's mostly role driven. Zimbardo's claim was that the participants of the SPE quickly exceeded anything like a role and deeply internalized their behaviour, and thus the SPE was an accurate demonstrator of what actually happens in prisons. FWIW, I agree with the criticism of the SPE as overly determined by Zimbardo.
posted by fatbird at 7:58 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


the experiment tells them something that they like hearing

Such as?
posted by fatbird at 7:59 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The critique is that the pretend evil that Zimbardo modeled only has a trivial relationship to real evil

I think I understand what you are saying, but I guess I'm just not sure that "real evil" in that context is actually a thing.
posted by likeatoaster at 8:01 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I think I understand what you are saying, but I guess I'm just not sure that "real evil" in that context is actually a thing."

I'm not either, but the idea that there is such a thing and that he successfully modeled it is what underpins everything Zimbardo has ever said about his Stanford Prison Experiment.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:15 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Getting punched in the face during a boxing match is not "fake". It's anything but fake. It is agreed upon by both participants that it is an acceptable outcome, and I think that that's what you're attempting to get at by labelling it "fake". But, again, it is anything but fake.

And the behavior of the guards towards the prisoners was neither fake nor agreed upon by all participants as acceptable. This "it's like boxing" thing really seems to me to be a pretty ridiculous analogy, frankly.
posted by Flunkie at 8:22 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Zimbardo experiment might replicate prison more than people think. What are guards told to do (both explicitly and implicitly) with relation to their prisoners? How are they instructed to act as to assert their authority to the vast number of prisoners who outnumber them?

I'm not being rhetorical here, is someone has resources on this, I would love to see it. But I imagine that his instructions are not terribly far off from what is expected of guards, at least in the '70s. These days I imagine efficiency and profit may also be guiding factors.
posted by Hactar at 8:27 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Interestingly, it seems to me that the "they did as they were told by an authority figure" interpretation is kind of an accidental replication of Milgram's work.
posted by kavasa at 8:35 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


fatbird - I'm not sure. Maybe that there are no moral differences between people, or that they don't matter much, compared to the setting the people are in? Maybe it's an optimistic kind of vision - if people act in an abusive way only because they have been placed in a setting which encourages this, then changing the setting could change the behavior? People are by nature benevolent and loving, and are corrupted from this path only by circumstances?
posted by thelonius at 8:53 AM on October 29, 2013


I think that that's what you're attempting to get at by labelling it "fake"

You're right, that's exactly what I'm getting at: within the ring, the punching and aggression are real; but it's artificial insofar as it's an agreed upon suspension of normal restraints that's carefully contained in time and space.

And the behavior of the guards towards the prisoners was neither fake nor agreed upon by all participants as acceptable.

Well, this is exactly what's questioned by the critique of the SPE. Zimbardo basically told them to act out the stereotypes of the time, and they did. "Fake" is a poorly chosen word, but it definitely seems to be artificial in the exact sense of a boxing match: real within the confines of the experiment, but not really reflecting an underlying disposition on anyone's parts just because, contrary to Milgram, they knew it wasn't real and understood their expected roles.
posted by fatbird at 9:14 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not all the fake guards did, though.

And I've heard at least a dozen people in prisons - some admin and some guards - say a variation of they wouldn't be here if they weren't criminals with the assumption that all people in jail are "criminals," criminals are bad, all criminals are in jail, and therefore only bad people are in jail. They prisoners they like aren't good people, they're good bad people. Very clear sense of otherness.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:22 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I spend a lot of time in a prison, and I can't make heads or tails of this criticism.

I mean, seriously: here's the "standard story":

The conditions of a prison, where one group has power over another and the powerless group are stripped of their individual identities, creates extreme, maladaptive responses that are characteristic of the responses often seen in real prisons.

So I'd expect a criticism that showed how this was wrong:

My own guess is that the behavior of the guards was largely if not entirely the result of their doing what they were told to do and what they believed they were supposed to do. The behavior of the prisoners in the first day or two, when they were pretending to riot and pretending to plot escapes, was probably also playacting of stereotyped concepts of what prisoners do. But their subsequent wearing down, passivity, and apparently genuine desire to get out of the prison may very well have been a direct response to what the guards were doing to them (coupled, I imagine, with their lack of sleep--the guards were on shifts but they were not).

So, umm, just like a real prison? I mean, this is what prison is like, down to the "shifts" for the guards and not for the prisoners.

I do think Zimbardo is a poor man's Milgram, but I don't see how this critique touches the uptake of the experiment. I mean, is the claim that there's no such thing as an inherent human nature, that unfettered domination is as socially constructed as the rules of equality that normally govern us? Okay, no problem: I get that prison guards aren't naturally evil and indifferent to the suffering of those they dominate. That's the entire Christopher Browning Ordinary Men approach to evil.

But it looks an awful lot like we're performing a big gigantic Zimbardo experiment with 2%-3% of the population and 3 out 10 black men and I don't think that this critique touched the way that we're the only country in the world with more male-male rapes than male-female rapes.

So, I guess good for this guy for not including a seminal study in his textbook despite the fact that it's born out by this terrible natural experiment. He's a real hero for social scientific research.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:44 AM on October 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


But if Zimbardo's right, it's not our fault that prison rape happens. We as a society don't have to bear any burden for the terrible things that go on in our prisons. It's just that spontaneous human evil thing happening.

If Prescott is right, then what Zimbardo really showed was that people are very suggestible, and that they will go to great lengths to please scientists and people conducting studies.


I think the upshot of this, anotherpanacea, is that the Zimbardo view would say that prison abuse is inevitable and nobody's fault, but Prescott's view would say that prison abuse is a result of the attitudes and expectations of the authorities, and therefore it is possible to create more humane prisons and that wardens and other authorities should be held responsible for how humane their prisons are and how the guards they supervise treat prisoners.
posted by straight at 9:56 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


likeatoaster: " But if it is, isn't there something independent that the results would demonstrate? Namely, that "regular" people are capable of intense evil when they are motivated to please others, or to do what they believe they are supposed to do in the circumstances? "

The problem, likeatoaster, is that the precepts of the experiment appear to be lies. You can't draw scientific conclusions from a pack of lies, no matter how much they seem to support your thesis.

Even if your thesis above is true, this "experiment" (cough, staged quasi-theater, cough) doesn't reliably demonstrate it.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:57 AM on October 29, 2013


We don't freak out at the level of aggression boxers display in the ring because we know it's, in an important sense, fake just because it's mostly role driven.

Some of us do freak out because, in an important sense, it's not fake.
posted by straight at 10:00 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think the upshot of this, anotherpanacea, is that the Zimbardo view would say that prison abuse is inevitable and nobody's fault

Err, not according to Zimbardo, or even the author (Gray):

The conditions of a prison, where one group has power over another and the powerless group are stripped of their individual identities, creates extreme, maladaptive responses that are characteristic of the responses often seen in real prisons.

Remember, the Zimbardo claim is NOT that people are inherently evil: it's that people will act evilly under the right institutional conditions, particularly unfettered domination. So we're responsible for putting them in that situation, and yes, it's our fault and absolutely avoidable.

So perhaps Gray's problem is that he is a bad reader, and then his critique is not of Zimbardo but of his caricature of Zimbardo. But the thing is, HIS OWN GLOSS contradicts his claims about Zimbardo, so that's likely not it, either.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:02 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think you're taking issue with my sloppy summary. I should have said that Zimbardo claims it's the fault of the institutional conditions but the alternate interpretation is that the fault lies with the leadership.

The question is whether the guards did evil things because prisons are inherently dehumanizing or whether the guards did evil things because that's what they thought Zimbardo wanted.
posted by straight at 10:11 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Agree with Hactar, and some of the follow up.

Prison is no joke; it's not an experiment - and guards have all the power. Why does one become a prison guard in the first place? What are the main demographics feeders for prison guards? I don't think you'll find a liberal bias in prison guards.

Zimbardo's prompting of his student participants may have more, than not, mimiced the kind of biased prejudice and lack of concern for ill-treatment that many (the majority?) of prison guards already come to the job with. Prison is an environment where you are likely not to be rehabilitated; where rehabilitation is an option, but protecting oneself from the abuse of both guards and other prisoners becomes "Job #1". There is way more of the subtext of fear that underlies the phrase "I'm just gonna shut up and do my time" than people on the "outside" think.

What I find intriguing and sad is the sheer waste of human capital in prisons. Sure, it's a place invented to punish offenders; to take away their freedom - but there is little done to control the internal dynamics of putting all criminals in the same box. btw, one could also apply Zimbardo's experiment to sweatshop labor.
posted by Vibrissae at 10:11 AM on October 29, 2013


If more psychology experiments drew their subjects from outside the pool of undergraduate students, I'd bet we'd have a lot more studies where the observed behavior was "Researchers were told to 'fuck off'".
posted by benito.strauss at 10:12 AM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Remember, the Zimbardo claim is NOT that people are inherently evil: it's that people will act evilly under the right institutional conditions, particularly unfettered domination. So we're responsible for putting them in that situation, and yes, it's our fault.

Blame is not the core analytical issue. The issue is, what conditions does SPE show lead to abusive behavior, like in prisons?

On the received interpretation, SPE shows that the sufficient conditions for abuse are very weak: just put some people in positions of unchecked power of some other people and wait a day.

The critique says that the experiment was not designed properly, and only establishes sufficiency for a much stronger set of conditions: put some people in positions of unchecked power, plus convince them that abuse is a necessary part of a science experiment you are running, extensively coach them on how to be abusive, supervise them so that they think they are meeting your explicit instructions by being abusive.

Our real prisons are obviously a historic scandal and a shame. But they don't constitute a "replication" of SPE -- because just like in the experiment, there are lots of plus factors that cause abuse, on top of the structure of the guard-prisoner relationship.
posted by grobstein at 10:13 AM on October 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


But they don't constitute a "replication" of SPE -- because just like in the experiment, there are lots of plus factors that cause abuse, on top of the structure of the guard-prisoner relationship.

This makes no sense. You've literally said: the Stanford Prison Experiment does not replicate actual prisons because actual prisons are too much like the Stanford Prison Experiment.

On the received interpretation, SPE shows that the sufficient conditions for abuse are very weak: just put some people in positions of unchecked power of some other people and wait a day.

The game here seems to be: read the most extreme possible interpretations into Zimbardo's experiment (not in the original paper, but the way it gets interpreted) and then critique that. It's just a strawman.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:30 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can anyone tell me whether the guards knew that the prisoners were volunteers who could quit at any time? Checking wikipedia didn't help but it did allow me to read the following: This article is about the psychology experiment. For the American punk band, see Stanford Prison Experiment (band).

If someone was volunteering to accept abuse and could quit at any time, the dynamic is a lot different for a "guard" who is aware of this.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:37 AM on October 29, 2013


read the most extreme possible interpretations into Zimbardo's experiment (not in the original paper, but the way it gets interpreted) and then critique that. It's just a strawman.

So Zimbardo's paper allows for the possibility that the guards' behavior could be attributed more to the instructions he gave them than to the overall institutional conditions?
posted by straight at 10:45 AM on October 29, 2013


It frequently surprises me that the vast majority of the attention tends to be focused on the "guards." But it's at least as surprising that the "prisoners" put up with the abuse.

Doesn't it seem that, on more standard interpretations, we need two explanations? (One roughly to the effect that we're all harboring evil that is easily triggered, one to the effect that we're all cowards willing to accept abuse.)

The new proposed explanation seems to explain both things...so it seems to have elegance/parsimony/economy working for it.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 10:48 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can anyone tell me whether the guards knew that the prisoners were volunteers who could quit at any time?

Consent form for the experiment

Information form for the experiment

Human Subjects Research Review form for the experiment
posted by blucevalo at 10:48 AM on October 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


I always thought that the point of the experiment was to show that, when guided to do so by perceived authority figures, ordinary people will willingly submit to doing cruel things to each other?

Did anyone ever really argue the cruelty just sort of happens without any suggestion from a leadership that encourages it?

I thought the point of the results was always understood to be that most people seem to have the capacity to act out the same kinds of roles played out by (for example) Nazi prison guards, if they're given directives from perceived "authorities" to do so.

Isn't that a result that demonstrates exactly the underlying banality of systematic evil that Hannah Arendt writes about? I don't see how these criticisms hit their mark.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:51 AM on October 29, 2013


So Zimbardo's paper allows for the possibility that the guards' behavior could be attributed more to the instructions he gave them than to the overall institutional conditions?

Yes.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:53 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Isn't that a result that demonstrates exactly the underlying banality of systematic evil that Hannah Arendt writes about? I don't see how these criticisms hit their mark.

The criticism of the SPE is that it doesn't demonstrate this, due to poor experimental design. In Milgram's case, the teachers believed they were genuinely shocking the students. It was a very clear demonstration of the banality of evil. SPE seems to be too artificial a demonstration of human cruelty, too self-conscious on the part of the participants.
posted by fatbird at 11:05 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'll keep this in mind next time we have a bizarro Hitler who, instead of exhorting people to do evil, brings commands to love one another and pet puppies and kittens.

Oh? They crucified a guy who said stuff like that? Hmmm...
posted by symbioid at 11:09 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's the actual paper. Most of these criticisms are considered and addressed through evidence and argument by Zimbardo himself on pages 11 and 12 under the heading "Reality of the Simulation."
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:11 AM on October 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


You also should take the Asch Conformity experiments into account as another indicator of the "banality of evil" hypothesis, or rather, a mechanism that enables it.

One can and should critique Milgram for the shortcomings, unfortunately, part of the problem here is that due to the type of experiment it was and lesser protocols than we have today, we have no way to replicate the experiment, since it would now violate those protocols.

So, instead of absolute repetition of the experiment as would be required in a fully 100% scientific method, the best we can hope for, at this point, is to adduce a pattern based upon these similar experiments and see if there are behaviors that can be explained with the commonalities between them all. The issue there, of course, is that you are now looking to make the data fit the pattern, instead of mapping the pattern to the (admittedly severely lacking) data.
posted by symbioid at 11:14 AM on October 29, 2013


anotherpanacea: “Here's the actual paper. Most of these criticisms are considered and addressed through evidence and argument by Zimbardo himself on pages 11 and 12 under the heading 'Reality of the Simulation.'”

Prescott's claim that Zimbardo is outright lying in the paper is probably something we have to confront, particularly since it makes sense of most of the "profound psychological effects" Zimbardo describes.
posted by koeselitz at 11:18 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


An interesting, if tangential, aspect of this experiment was this: students not involved in the project were told about it, then asked to write a short explanation telling what they thought the results would be. They accurately predicted that guards would act like guards and prisoners would act like prisoners. Their explanation reflected their preconceptions of how guards and prisoners act. Prison riots were in the news in those days, so the images were handy.

If the contour of the Stanford prison experiment was shaped by instructions to dehumanize the prisoners in various ways, then the result was predictable. Indeed, it would have been instructive had the guards been trained to treat the prisoners in a humane manner. But that's not what the experiment did, so it's no use criticizing it on that ground.

Circumstances and expectations were the key to the experiment. The subtext, however, is more telling. We all like to think we are decent. But the Stanford and Milgram experiments indicate that we, generally, are capable of doing things that we believe decent folks would not do. I agree with Gray's critique in so far as believing the Stanford experiment was shaped by the instructions given to the guards. I don't agree that it was trivial. I believe it was poorly conducted, but that the results were significant. And more than a little unsettling.

At the time they were given the instructions, the guards were not yet sucked down into the rabbit hole. They agreed (at the outset) to treat the prisoners in certain ways that would be dehumanizing. My theory of that aspect is that the guards hadn't internalized how that sort of thing works. They thought it to be only a game, not realizing how encompassing it would turn out to be. Maybe they thought that simply acting like an asshole wouldn't equate to being an asshole. Consider that the guards were angry when the experiment was terminated. This is a good indication that reality is an agreement, not a thing apart from the people who create it. This could lead a person into grazing Zen pastures, but that response takes more that a few days to develop. Good people can be led to do bad things, willingly. This is a surprise to many, and to many, it's not acceptable. We don't like to think we could be one of the guards. We want to believe that guards act that way because, well, that type of person applies for the job.

In fact not all guards are brutal, but that's not the issue. Our perception is. We tend to role-play. It's how our military trains normal people to be soldiers. I'm not disparaging a soldier. My point is that the situation creates expectations, and we try to conform to the expectations. Some won't. Most will. A good citizen tries to act like a good citizen, according to his own lights. That's how we're able to rationalize certain actions: shaving taxes, speeding, doing illegal recreational drugs, driving under the influence, keeping the package we find on the seat of the bus. Our version of good applies, and the rest are loose ends that don't need to be tied.

As a parting shot, I offer the Abu Ghraib prison fiasco. The parallel to the Stanford prison experiment is uncanny, all the way from the prisoner to the president.
posted by mule98J at 11:23 AM on October 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


anotherpanacea: “So, I guess good for this guy for not including a seminal study in his textbook despite the fact that it's born out by this terrible natural experiment. He's a real hero for social scientific research.”

Well, it's understandable, even if one generally agrees with Zimbardo's study. It's not particularly well-managed; it was not scientific by the standards of the field as it is today, and he engages in some pretty wild speculation in the paper. In general it's not a great example of how a psychological study should be run. I agree completely that the whole affair points to some important things about our highly-problematic institutions, but I am not at all convinced that Zimbardo himself is giving us the right way of framing it.

anotherpanacea: “I spend a lot of time in a prison, and I can't make heads or tails of this criticism.”

You may wish to look over the alternate link mentioned briefly in the post: "The Lie of the Stanford Prison Experiment." It's an essay by Carlo Prescott, an ex-con and ex-prisoner who was the consultant Zimbardo mentions several times in the original study. He vehemently disagreed, both with the way the study ended up being conducted and with the way it was written up and interpreted. (He also claims Zimbardo actually lied about how the study was set up.) I think his perspective, as a person who knew prison life and took seriously the problems it presents in an ever more institutionalized society, is worth paying attention to.
posted by koeselitz at 11:34 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Prescott's claim that Zimbardo is outright lying in the paper is probably something we have to confront, particularly since it makes sense of most of the "profound psychological effects" Zimbardo describes.

Prescott doesn't accuse him of lying, he accuses him of priming the students. Zimbardo himself acknowledges that such priming occurred, and goes out of his way to ask whether they could distinguish white coat syndrome from the actual absorption of the students into their roles. This, of course, mirrors the actual ways in which guards in real prisons learn their jobs from other guards. And of course, it ignores the students who played prisoners.

I think he gives pretty good evidence (in the section of the paper I cited) that the students weren't just acting for the benefit of the researchers, but even took on their roles in situations where they thought they were unmonitored.

Of course, that doesn't mean the study has the same rigor as contemporary studies, but then, who cares? There's lots of reason to worry that contemporary rigor just produces a different set of biases and makes whole hosts of phenomena unstudiable. Since some of my work involves research on/with prisoners, I can attest that contemporary IRB approval is basically designed to make fact-finding and knowledge production about our prisons almost completely impossible. (All in the name of protecting prisoners.) My Department of Corrections hasn't allowed researchers to interview prisoners in any capacity for almost three years, citing budget constraints, even though I can easily access prisoners in other capacities; but without that permission, I can't get IRB approval.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:40 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


This makes no sense. You've literally said: the Stanford Prison Experiment does not replicate actual prisons because actual prisons are too much like the Stanford Prison Experiment.

You're quibbling. What they don't do is vindicate the received interpretation of the experiment.

That people will mistreat other people under some conditions is not a very impressive research finding. What was supposed to be so electrifying about the SPE was how minimal those conditions were.

The game here seems to be: read the most extreme possible interpretations into Zimbardo's experiment (not in the original paper, but the way it gets interpreted) and then critique that. It's just a strawman.

Zimbardo has been writing and talking about interpretations of SPE for decades, not just in "the original paper." (Zimbardo published two papers on SPE in 1973, but he couldn't get either of them into top journals because of concerns about the methodology.) His interpretation is exactly how I and Gray have described it. He repeatedly frames the experiment as showing the abusive behavior emerges directly from the features of the prison-like institution, not from his prompting. In one of the original publications, he described his instructions in the following way:
[The guards] were told that we wanted to try to simulate a prison environment within the limits imposed by pragmatic and ethical considerations. Their assigned task was to "maintain the reasonable degree of order within the prison necessary for its effective functioning", although the specifics of how this duty might be implemented were not explicitly detailed. . . . The "Warden" instructed the guards in the administrative details, . . . . In order to begin to involve these subjects in their roles even before the first prisoner was incarcerated, the guards assisted in the final phases of completing the prison complex -- putting the cots in the cells, signs on the walls, setting up the guards' quarters, moving furniture, water coolers, refrigerators, etc. . . . To optimise the extent to which their behavior would reflect their genuine reactions to the experimental prison situation and not simply their ability to follow instructions, they were intentionally given only minimal guidelines for what it meant to be a guard. An explicit and categorical prohibition against the use of physical punishment or physical aggression was, however, emphasised by the experimenters.
(Here). Check out this paragraph -- we are meant to understand that things like taking care of the administrative details, putting the cots in the cells, and so on all worked together as indicia of the guard role, and that the adoption of that role is what caused the abusive behavior. They were given "only minimal guidelines," so any behavior that came out must be based on the institutional features of the situation.

Oddly, Zimbardo doesn't mention here (or anywhere in either paper) the coaching he gave the guards on how to abuse the prisoners. Whatever his intention, the effect is rather deceptive.

The interpretation of an experiment always depends on what the experimental conditions are. In this case, describing the experimental conditions as apparently so anodyne, generic and "minimal," so lacking in specific instructions, and especially lacking any specific prompting towards mistreatment, suggests the interpretation that it's just the guards' power and supervisory position that creates the abuse -- an interpretation you basically offered in an earlier comment before calling it a strawman. By describing the experiment the way he does, Zimbardo is arguing for that interpretation. And he also says things like:
Being a guard carried with it social status within the prison, a group identity . . ., and above all, the freedom to exercise . . . control over the lives of other human being. This control was invariably expressed in terms of sanctions, punishment, demands, and with the threat of manifest physical power.


When more facts about the experimental conditions come into view, this strong interpretation is no longer possible. Were "sanctions" and "punishment" "invariably" the result of the social role he describes, or were they partly the result of the explicit coaching (which, again, Zimbardo doesn't mention in either of the original papers)?

What part of this is a strawman?

But anyway the significance of the SPE is not just what Zimbardo has said about it; it's what the institutional culture of psychology has enshrined it as meaning. That's why this discussion is about textbook inclusion. In an earlier comment you didn't seem to mind the article's gloss on this: "The conditions of a prison, where one group has power over another and the powerless group are stripped of their individual identities, creates extreme, maladaptive responses that are characteristic of the responses often seen in real prisons." The experiment doesn't show that, because the conditions that created the "maladaptive responses" were much more than that simple power dynamic.
posted by grobstein at 11:48 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's the actual paper. Most of these criticisms are considered and addressed through evidence and argument by Zimbardo himself on pages 11 and 12 under the heading "Reality of the Simulation."

No, they are not. In his discussion of "demand characteristics", he claims again that "instructions about how to behave" "were not explicitly defined." Again he is selling the picture of "minimal" "role demands." He doesn't address the concern that he primed the guards' behavior by suggesting to them particular ways they could mistreat the prisoners -- how could he, since he left that little colloquy out of the paper entirely?
posted by grobstein at 11:55 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


suggests the interpretation that it's just the guards' power and supervisory position that creates the abuse -- an interpretation you basically offered in an earlier comment before calling it a strawman.

You're quibbling. My claim is that power abuse always happens in a context that justifies certain abusive behaviors, and that the ones we see in American prisons mirror that. Nobody, least of all Zimbardo, claimed that power abuse happens in a vacuum.

That people will mistreat other people under some conditions is not a very impressive research finding. What was supposed to be so electrifying about the SPE was how minimal those conditions were.

I don't think that's true. Look at the original article: what's "electrifying" is that it didn't seem to matter who is put in those conditions, not what those conditions are. The provocative thing was that hippy Stanford students could find themselves acting so cruelly and subserviently, not that they did it with "minimal" prompting. The whole thing was elaborately staged: it could never be called "minimal."

Oddly, Zimbardo doesn't mention here (or anywhere in either paper) the coaching he gave the guards on how to abuse the prisoners.

I don't believe we have evidence that Zimbardo "coached" the guards. You're blowing Prescott's objections out of proportion: the right word is "primed." (I see you've corrected that in your most recent comment.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:57 AM on October 29, 2013


Were "sanctions" and "punishment" "invariably" the result of the social role he describes

Are you asking whether sanctions and punishments are invariable parts of prison environments? Because they are. The specific formulations may vary, but prison is, first and foremost, punitive.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:01 PM on October 29, 2013


Whether the Zimbardo study shows what it purports to show or not, I would argue that it has a place in an introductory psych textbook. I would have no quibbles if the author of this piece wanted to put the study under the ethics chapter (I'm assuming there is one--god knows, psych out of all fields definitely needs one) instead of the standard chapter with Milgram and the other studies about behavior.

I know that the discussions in my Psych 101 class about brown eyes/blue eyes, the Nazi experiments, and yes Milgram and Zimbardo's experiments really informed how I feel about psychology and especially the ethics and behaviors patients should expect their psychologists to be held accountable to. I'm never going to practice psychology but these discussions really helped me understand the field, and so I think there's absolutely value in detailing the SPE in an intro textbook.
posted by librarylis at 12:24 PM on October 29, 2013


anotherpanacea: “Prescott doesn't accuse him of lying, he accuses him of priming the students. Zimbardo himself acknowledges that such priming occurred, and goes out of his way to ask whether they could distinguish white coat syndrome from the actual absorption of the students into their roles. This, of course, mirrors the actual ways in which guards in real prisons learn their jobs from other guards. And of course, it ignores the students who played prisoners.”

He doesn't really acknowledge this; nor does he go out of his way to examine the impact it had on the experiment. I think you're pointing to this paragraph in the paper you have linked:

“Although instructions about how to behave in the roles of guard or prisoner were not explicitly defined, demand characteristics in the experiment obviously exerted some directing influence. Therefore, it is enlightening to look to circumstances where role demands were minimal, where the subjects believed they were not being observed, or where they should not have been behaving under the constraints imposed by their roles (as in "private" situations), in order to assess whether the role behaviors reflected anything more than public conformity or good acting.”

But this paragraph does not do what you seem to want it to – indeed, what Dr Zimbardo seems to want it to do. It explicitly denies, as grobstein has noted, that Zimbardo "coached" or "primed" the guards and prisoners by giving them instructions about how to behave. It then goes on to attempt to talk about how they can get around the ways that "demand characteristics in the experiment" might have influenced the results; but he does so by examining other parts of the experiment where he presumes the subjects didn't realize they were being watched. His presumption is tenuous at best, and it's clear that he hasn't taken seriously the problem: that people are really just acting out the instructions as they were given to them.

grobstein: “Oddly, Zimbardo doesn't mention here (or anywhere in either paper) the coaching he gave the guards on how to abuse the prisoners.”

anotherpanacea: “I don't believe we have evidence that Zimbardo 'coached' the guards. You're blowing Prescott's objections out of proportion: the right word is 'primed.'”

I don't think you read Prescott's objections very carefully. He does in fact say that Zimbardo was lying, and intimates that guards were coached explicitly on ways to mistreat prisoners. From the piece linked in the post:

“Nevertheless, ideas such as bags being placed over the heads of prisoners, inmates being bound together with chains and buckets being used in place of toilets in their cells were all experiences of mine at the old 'Spanish Jail' section of San Quentin and which I dutifully shared with the Stanford Prison Experiment braintrust months before the experiment started. To allege that all these carefully tested, psychologically solid, upper-middle-class Caucasian 'guards' dreamed this up on their own is absurd.”

Prescott is saying here that there is no way the 'guards' themselves came up with arbitrary punishments and mistreatments which just happened to be identical down to very small details to the abuses Prescott had described the day before to Zimbardo. This is a serious allegation: that Zimbardo gave a list to 'guards' of what kinds of treatment might be allowed, a tacit set of instructions for them on how to abuse the 'prisoners.'

If Zimbardo had followed standard protocol for psychological and scientific studies and described in exact detail precisely what he said to the students to prepare them for the experiment, then this would be a case of his word versus Prescott's. But he has not done that in any piece I've seen. He's actually been quite vague about what prompts he used. For this reason, it's hard not to take Prescott's claims here seriously. And if we do take them seriously, then the thrust of the argument as Zimbardo lays it out – that 'guards' and 'prisoners' assumed these roles on their own, synthesizing them independently using details of their own past experiences – falls apart entirely.
posted by koeselitz at 12:43 PM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Zimbardo strikes me as a bit creepy. What kind of researcher decides to gather a group of students for a prison simulation? And then involves himself in its operation as superintendent?

I sometimes wonder if Zimbardo has to downplay his coaching of the guards because the alternative forces us to ask what culpability Zimbardo himself had in the abuse. If the guards' cruelty was entirely situational, Zimbardo was innocent of their actions. If they were primed, he was not.

How one interprets the Stanford Prison experiment has a relationship to our view of the moral character of the researcher himself - which in my view is a dangerous source of potential bias.
posted by Wemmick at 12:46 PM on October 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


koeselitz: "If Zimbardo had followed standard protocol for psychological and scientific studies and described in exact detail precisely what he said to the students to prepare them for the experiment, then"
... he would have performed a repeatable, controlled, and understandable experiment that could be usefully studied.

Which he did not. And that is the whole problem. He's founded his career on what is essentially a stunt, not science.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:31 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Zimbardo strikes me as a bit creepy. What kind of researcher decides to gather a group of students for a prison simulation? And then involves himself in its operation as superintendent?"

Also of note, he married one of his graduate students who was helping him run it soon afterwards.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:01 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I prefer Howard Becker's famous aphorism, with respect to deviancy theory in particular, that people do things that we think in retrospect or from our own social position are bad ideas because they seem like a good idea at the time.

To me, the problems are philosophical and ontological and not really subject to unbiased experimental confirmation.
posted by spitbull at 2:05 PM on October 29, 2013


a few thoughts here, after having taught Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo to many semesters of students:

1. Zimbardo has been pretty clear over the years that the SPE wouldn't hold up as "proper" science because nobody was willing to replicate it, especially himself and his colleagues.

2. the main guard, called "John Wayne" by the prisoners, is quoted on one of the many videos available on the SPE as saying that he didn't like the prisoners' attitudes on the first day, so he decided to "play a role" and be like Strother Martin in "Cool Hand Luke." And if you've seen any of the video from the experiment, this makes total sense, because he does attempt a sort of Southern drawl as he engages in his interactions with the prisoners.

3. the prisoners were told that they could leave, but when one of them actually requested to leave after about two days, Zimbardo, as the warden, discouraged him from doing so. He went back and told the other prisoners that "you can't get out," and their rebellious attitudes basically disappeared.

4. the BBC did try to replicate the experiment as a "reality" TV show a few years back, and got different results, sort of. The prisoners ended up taking over - but again, how much of that was because they now had a "reality" TV show set of expectations that they were trying to replicate? BBC Prison Study

5. Zimbardo maintains a website with a rather large set of links that clearly deal with both Zimbardo's perception of the experiment, but also the controversy here's the set of links

6. it has always been improper to refer to the SPE as "proving" anything about human nature simply because it wouldn't be replicated by any sort of serious researchers. That's why Abu Ghraib caused so many people to look again. as several posters have stated up above, the parallels between Abu Ghraib and the SPE are significant.

and that's all I have to say about that - no real conclusions, but some additional kindling onto the fire of discussion...
posted by jkosmicki at 2:28 PM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Ah, Blasdelb, it gets more interesting. That graduate student was also the individual who told Zimbardo that what he was doing was horrible and unethical and that if that's the type of person he was, she didn't want anything more to do with him. That's what is claimed to have made him realize that the experiment had gone too far and needed to be stopped early.

and if we're going to throw out all the work of scientists (social or otherwise) who have had relationships with or later married former students or assistants, the fields of science are going to become rather fallow rather quickly.
posted by jkosmicki at 2:32 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think blame for over-reading the SPE should be laid entirely at Zimbardo's feet. Though he has dined out on the experiment for virtually all of his subsequent career, everything I've read (a reasonable amount) has shown him to be clearly aware of, and always calling out, the experiment's limitations and flaws - indeed, those limitations and flaws are partly what make it so compelling, I think.

My first encounter with the SPE was in my first year sociology class/textbook. Contrary to the assertions here as to why it would be included, it was actually brought up as an example of the difficulty of sociological research, and the way that researchers cannot remove themselves from society, i.e they are in a way subjects themselves, and how important it is never to forget that.

In such a context, the SPE seems like an excellent inclusion in a first year syllabus.
posted by smoke at 3:12 PM on October 29, 2013


It explicitly denies, as grobstein has noted, that Zimbardo "coached" or "primed" the guards and prisoners by giving them instructions about how to behave.

I guess I would just ask: what evidence do you have that there was coaching, that Zimbardo lied in the way that you are suggesting?

Similar punishments to San Quentin? Well, those punishments figured in many other depictions of prisons, such as Cool Hand Luke, which came out a few years before the experiment. Prisons are part of the culture; the students were primed merely by the staging.

Prescott doesn't report on some actual encounter, he merely claims it must have happened this way and that he is frustrated by the way that the experiment is being interpreted. Insofar as someone would interpret this experiment as evidence that prisons cannot be humane, I'd agree with that criticism. But that's not the only interpretation: you can instead conclude that prisons should not be spaces of unaccountable domination, and that if they were not, then they would not be so cruel.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:32 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


the parallels between Abu Ghraib and the SPE are significant.

Including serious disagreement over who exactly should be held accountable for the bad stuff that happened.
posted by straight at 8:33 AM on October 30, 2013


I told this one dude to play an anti paladin and he really got into it. Like, REALLY into it.
posted by benzenedream at 11:32 AM on November 3, 2013


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