The lifespan of a lie
June 11, 2018 1:56 PM   Subscribe

 
My main interface with the Standford Prison Experiment is through research ethics training. In that context, the main narrative is that it was a profoundly messed up thing to do. This doesn't convince me otherwise.

I'm not a psychologist, but it seemed to me that the actual experiment was set up so poorly that not much generalizable knowledge could have been garnered from the results.
posted by demiurge at 2:09 PM on June 11 [20 favorites]


"Some intro psych professors I spoke to felt that it helped instill the understanding that those who do bad things are not necessarily bad people. Others pointed to the importance of teaching students in our unusually individualistic culture that their actions are profoundly influenced by external factors."

If you're a professor and you like teaching fictional stories to teach students things about themselves and the world maybe you should consider switching to literature?
posted by bleep at 2:12 PM on June 11 [34 favorites]


“Now, okay,” Zimbardo corrected himself on the phone with me. He then acknowledged that the informed consent forms which subjects signed had included an explicit safe phrase: “I quit the experiment.” Only that precise phrase would trigger their release.

“None of them said that,” Zimbardo said. “They said, ‘I want out. I want a doctor. I want my mother,’ etc., etc. Essentially I was saying, ‘You have to say, “I quit the experiment.”’”

But the informed consent forms that Zimbardo’s subjects signed, which are available online from Zimbardo’s own website, contain no mention of the phrase “I quit the experiment.”
He sounds DELIGHTFUL.
posted by schadenfrau at 2:16 PM on June 11 [51 favorites]


Ok but do we have any actual research that isn’t garbage on how and why people become monsters in certain settings? Or under certain conditions?

It does feel...topical.
posted by schadenfrau at 2:17 PM on June 11 [26 favorites]


That story took a fascinating personal turn near the end with the author's cousin.

I've been thinking lately about Mennonities and the Holocaust, and this fits in - in a complicated way that I haven't wrapped my mind around yet - with that.
posted by clawsoon at 2:20 PM on June 11


" We have been taught that guards abused prisoners in the Stanford prison experiment because of the power of their roles, but Haslam and Reicher argue that their behavior arose instead from their identification with the experimenters, which Jaffe and Zimbardo encouraged at every turn."

It does seem like the experiment "happening" does have some of the lessons it claims to have, just not for the right reasons.
posted by bleep at 2:23 PM on June 11 [11 favorites]


As in it's very easy to manipulate people to do bad things if you say "This is what the group is doing now" and "We are doing it for good reasons that you want to be a part of as a fellow good person".
posted by bleep at 2:24 PM on June 11 [12 favorites]


Zimbardo cast himself has the Warden. No fucking wonder he got the results he meant to get.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:27 PM on June 11 [6 favorites]


Not the Warden, the Superintendent.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:37 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Ok but do we have any actual research that isn’t garbage on how and why people become monsters in certain settings? Or under certain conditions?

It does feel...topical.


The article mentions two more scientific landmark studies further down,
But if Zimbardo’s work was so profoundly unscientific, how can we trust the stories it claims to tell? Many other studies, such as Soloman Asch’s famous experiment demonstrating that people will ignore the evidence of their own eyes in conforming to group judgments about line lengths, illustrate the profound effect our environments can have on us. The far more methodologically sound — but still controversial — Milgram experiment demonstrates how prone we are to obedience in certain settings.
posted by codacorolla at 2:39 PM on June 11 [11 favorites]


The Milgram experiment in particular is an interesting counter case because it’s been so extensively replicated, and it implies something subtly contradictory to the SPE narrative, yet in popular culture they’re seen as co-explanatory.

If you squint enough, even the SPE looks a little like a Milgram replication. In staging the experiment so as to demonstrate that abuses arise organically from the environment, they instead demonstrated how folks will — eagerly or reluctantly — follow instructions given to them by a perceived authority.
posted by emmalemma at 3:10 PM on June 11 [34 favorites]


Also worth noting that another rock star experiment that gets cited constantly in the popular imagination was conducted at Stanford's psych department, and has also proven to be not rigorous and not reproducible: The Marshmallow Experiment. The essential idea is to give children an option between a single marshmallow immediately, or the option of two marshmallows if they can wait some pre-determined time for a researcher to 'come back from an errand'. Longitudinal studies by the Stanford lab indicated that this was a predictor for success later in life, but downplayed the WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) effect of drawing initial samples from Stanford faculty children, and then later "confirming" the effect with similarly homogeneous (though poorer) samples.

A recent NYU study applying far more rigour indicates that, unsurprisingly, this is less about individual grit and resilience, and more about straight-up socio-economic factors:
From an Atlantic write-up of the newer study:
Watts and his colleagues were skeptical of that finding. The original results were based on studies that included fewer than 90 children—all enrolled in a preschool on Stanford’s campus. In restaging the experiment, Watts and his colleagues thus adjusted the experimental design in important ways: The researchers used a sample that was much larger—more than 900 children—and also more representative of the general population in terms of race, ethnicity, and parents’ education. The researchers also, when analyzing their test’s results, controlled for certain factors—such as the income of a child’s household—that might explain children’s ability to delay gratification and their long-term success.

Much like the FPP article indicates about the Stanford Prison Experiment, this is weakly designed science being used as a convenient prop for regressive and racist attitudes, which then drive regressive and racist policy. This is all part and parcel with the recent replication crisis, where so many "common sense" ideas that we hold aren't even remotely able to be reproduced in more statistically rigorous experiment designs (a recent thread here about it).

Doing really rigorous, statistically significant research is hard and expensive. Relying on undergrad and faculty populations in rich University towns is a convenient substitute. However, for many years, positivists would hold up bullshit "experiments" as being more valuable than rigorous qualitative work, simply because those "experiments" had a useful gloss of science to them. Those people have a lot to answer for, in my opinion. Your research is never apolitical, and giving assholes the stalking horse they need to implement some grotesque policy with a veneer of scientific objectivity is nearly as bad as implementing the policy yourself.
posted by codacorolla at 3:12 PM on June 11 [56 favorites]




I was wondering specifically about prison guards, which probably I should have actually said. I didn’t say because, well, I guess because it’s a little personal? I have an uncle that got laid off and took a job as a prison guard and...

I mean. I wonder how much of it was there, before. But he’s definitely a monster now.
posted by schadenfrau at 3:19 PM on June 11 [6 favorites]


In another blow to the experiment’s scientific credibility, Haslam and Reicher’s attempted replication, in which guards received no coaching and prisoners were free to quit at any time, failed to reproduce Zimbardo’s findings. Far from breaking down under escalating abuse, prisoners banded together and won extra privileges from guards, who became increasingly passive and cowed.

Wow.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 3:37 PM on June 11 [7 favorites]


Interesting information, but I hate the "debunking" framing.

Every time someone tries to "debunk" the SPE, it just reinforces the conclusions I've always drawn from it: namely, that cruelty probably isn't some sort of biological inevitability for a given individual, but is evoked by social structures. "John Wayne" wasn't "really" like that, he was just performing the role that he thought the people in charge wanted? Uh, yeah, that's the point. The researchers themselves had already been drawn in to the fantasy by the time the project actually started? Yes. This is the lesson I thought we had all learned from this. To this day, the people involved/responsible are all still pointing fingers and blaming others/the situation itself for the worst abuses? Again, what experiment were others studying that this invalidates any of the lessons learned rather than intensifying them?

We've known from jump street that the experimental design was garbage and Zimbardo's "data" and/or his interpretation of them are worthless. More data coming out about how fucked up the whole thing was sharpens the VERY VALUABLE lessons we can take from this regrettable event; I don't see anything here that meaningfully contradicts them.

On preview: a "blow to the experiment's scientific credibility"... I missed that phrasing on my readthrough. What a riot! "Scientific credibility!"
posted by Krawczak at 3:47 PM on June 11 [10 favorites]


Now do the popular narrative about inductive generalization
posted by thelonius at 3:54 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


If you're a professor and you like teaching fictional stories to teach students things about themselves and the world maybe you should consider switching to literature?

Or perhaps become a YouTube personality (previously).
posted by Ashwagandha at 4:11 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]


The Robber's Cave experiment was also recently investigated and found to be... poorly conducted and reported, at the very least. Growing up learning about all of these "humans are monsters given the slightest excuse/provocation" experiments gave me a very dour outlook when I was formulating ideas about humanity at large. I'm relieved on one hand to finally hear that many of these were manipulated, but profoundly angry on the other. This didn't just damage the psyches of those in the experiments; I think we've all been done a disservice.
posted by queensissy at 4:35 PM on June 11 [8 favorites]


Wire mother did nothing wrong.
posted by fleacircus at 5:08 PM on June 11 [9 favorites]


The Robber's Cave Experiment (is that the link you wanted?) always fascinated me too, because it happened in Oklahoma, and I was from Oklahoma, and when I went to grade school in Oklahoma everyone was arbitrarily divided into two groups to compete against each other in field days and other sports competitions. Fifty years later, I STILL think "Bows" are upright, moral citizens who always do the right thing and play by the rules, while "Arrows" are sneaky, untrustworthy cheaters who shouldn't be given the time of day.
posted by yhbc at 5:15 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]


There, there, wire mother. The bad men don't appreciate your charms of hooks and mesh.
posted by benzenedream at 6:33 PM on June 11


Speaking as someone who has taught Intro Psych, the only way I have ever presented the SPE is as a bad example of an unethical study, not because it was ethical, but because it was a pseudoscientific sham. It is to research what reality television is to reality.

I'm sad to say that the vast majority of my colleagues who teach undergraduates (most of whom are older than me) have not come around to this way of thinking. For people who came up in academic psychology in the 90s or earlier, the storytelling quality of the SPE, like one of Aesop's Fables, was so compelling that almost none of them have ever done anything other than swallow the accepted narrative whole and regurgitate it to new students. That it was unethical has actually worked in its favor, since the public have this misconception that "rogue scientists" do much more compelling work because they are free of red tape (And to be clear, they do not; "rogue scientists" almost always do garbage science, because the red tape serves as a powerful set of checks and balances that prevent the results from being distorted by perverse incentives).

Like the "modern myth" of the murder of Kitty Genovese (which went down very differently from the story most psychology students learn), the SPE is yet another piece of folk wisdom dressed up misleadingly in modern trappings by opportunists and hucksters who find doing PR easier than doing real science. Psychology is riddled with such myths, and has a lot of work left to do shaking them off.
posted by belarius at 6:43 PM on June 11 [32 favorites]


See also: 38 people did not ignore Kitty Genovese's murder. In fact, she died in the arms of a neighbor, although another neighbor--with a history of being harassed by the police because he was a gay man--first ignored the attack before calling the police.

it's interesting, the theories and studies and stories we tell ourselves to absolve one another--and ourselves--of indifference or cruelty or inaction born of fear or failures we hate to believe could be our own.

I mean, I confront this every day when I don't take another immigration bond hearing case on my pro bono mailing list, when I walk past another person on the street corner with a cup and sign asking for help, We keep looking for a real explanation for individual human frailty and fault but only if we can lay it at the feet of something bigger than the person who fails.
posted by crush at 6:51 PM on June 11 [11 favorites]


The bystander effect, but for hoping some other person will fall on the sword of explaining why the experiment/case study was poorly conceived and conducted and its limited results don't show what the speaker claims anyways.
posted by threementholsandafuneral at 7:12 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]


"John Wayne" wasn't "really" like that, he was just performing the role that he thought the people in charge wanted? Uh, yeah, that's the point. The researchers themselves had already been drawn in to the fantasy by the time the project actually started? Yes. This is the lesson I thought we had all learned from this.

It's not the point that lots of other people have been taught, though. More on that below.

The Milgram experiment in particular is an interesting counter case because it’s been so extensively replicated, and it implies something subtly contradictory to the SPE narrative, yet in popular culture they’re seen as co-explanatory.

Yes, this. Zimbardo effectively says "anyone put into a prison guard role will turn out like this". Milgram says "some people that have become convinced that their superiors need them to be assholes will turn out like this" (and sometimes participants rebel!).

There are at least two levels of misconduct at work in the Stanford Prison Experiment. First, there's the fact that people weren't allowed to stop participating. That's something that figured heavily in every treatment I've seen of the experiment. Second, there's that even if they were allowed to leave, the methods of the experiment were not fully disclosed and the conclusions were spun so far from what the data supported that a completely misleading narrative of the experiment has a significant mindshare even now. That second problem is something that far fewer people know about. If you were one of the people that knew about that, that's good, but just be aware that lots of people haven't been so lucky as to encounter an account that went over those aspects.
posted by Jpfed at 7:35 PM on June 11 [8 favorites]


In '88 I took a 200-level psychology class and someone asked the professor about Zimbardo.

There went that class period. He spent the entire time going over how broken and bad it was, diagramming it, debunking it, and going into every single part of it from top to bottom, and then took five minutes at the end to dismantle Zimbardo himself as well (he said that he'd met Zimbardo at a conference and that he had "never met a more self-deluded insufferable clod in my entire lifetime".

Add in that he started with, "Oh, Christ, Zimbaaaaaaaaaaaardo" and I wished I had popcorn that day.
posted by mephron at 6:52 AM on June 12 [26 favorites]


It's interesting to me that the author sees the experiment (as presented) as something that people found gave them absolution. I guess in the "we are all equally bad" sense? Hey, if we could ALL turn into sadists at the drop of a hat, we shouldn't feel too bad about it, clearly we can't help it?

The description of Zimbardo made me think of TED talk speakers. I don't wonder if they're full of it, I wonder HOW full of it they are.
posted by emjaybee at 7:11 AM on June 12 [8 favorites]


that cruelty probably isn't some sort of biological inevitability for a given individual, but is evoked by social structures.

Came back to the thread to opine that I think Lord of the Flies is also a lie -- or people read "biological inevitability" into it, but I don't think (fictional) boys would behave so weirdly if not for the social structures of very repressive and cruel boarding schools. (And maybe you get repressive and cruel boarding schools where people aren't allowed to leave after signing up.)_
posted by puddledork at 7:19 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]


[see also: the Kitty Genovese murder and 54 years of that lie]

We do, as a culture, seem to fall in love any narrative that can be easily converted into fuel for self-hatred and pessimism, don't we?
posted by sonascope at 7:41 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


I think this is good news because its failure reaffirms that we're not innate monsters, but rather we're all easily brainwashed; our cruelty is acquired under coercion, and does not justify more brainwashing. At their core, the Asch and Milgram conclusions run counter to Zimbardo, both showing conformity and appeasement as our negative influences. The Asch and Milgram experiments do not lend themselves to psychology generally, which in practice is viewed as a normative intervention for individuals who stray from normal behavior, with emphasis on emotional support. What underpins this normative view is anti-thinking, or the notion that the correctness of our thoughts are secondary to socially normative emotions.
posted by Brian B. at 7:57 AM on June 12


I still don't understand the lie part of the Kitty Genovese story. She was murdered. The police canvassed the area and talked to multiple people who saw her being attacked, had no knowledge of anyone responding in any way, and did nothing. That was the original story. And it's a story because a cop who was involved was fed up with this and told a reporter.

I've read a debunking which remarks that the killer dragged her out of sight quickly, so people didn't see the attack continue.

Most of the people who heard and then saw the initial attack, but did not make a call or check with a neighbor or anything, were not people who had any reason to fear the police.

Other individuals who did act don't cancel out the "bystanders," they're just better people because they responded.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:58 AM on June 12


That was the original story. And it's a story because a cop who was involved was fed up with this and told a reporter.
The original story of Kitty Genovese’s death, first promulgated by the New York Times in a front-page article 50 years ago today—young single woman brutally murdered while 38 strangers watched and did nothing—was incorrect in almost every particular.

The murder itself was horrifying, of course. The Times got that right. But the story that made Genovese a household name and a symbol of modern social dysfunction got nearly everything else wrong. From the number of witnesses to the details of the crime to the timing of the police response, there are by my count no fewer than 29 significant errors in the original Times story, five of them in its very first sentence.
Don't Look Now.
posted by Lexica at 9:14 AM on June 12 [13 favorites]


Yeah, you might benefit from reading the linked article. Only two people had a real idea of what was going on. Most people who "heard the attack" heard a scream or two. I'm sure you have this great satisfying image in your mind of all these Bad Urban People running to the window, watching the murder, and shrugging, but, as one would hope the discussion here had already illustrated, when you find a story that right, that satisfying, that perfectly illuminative of your worldview, you should instantly be very suspicious. And if the phrase "fed-up cop" doesn't immediately crank up your skepticism a few degrees, well.
posted by praemunire at 10:30 AM on June 12 [10 favorites]


but I don't think (fictional) boys would behave so weirdly if not for the social structures of very repressive and cruel boarding schools.

I think this actually was the book’s argument, but I don’t think I’ve ever saw it taught that way.

I’m also interested in what happens to people after they’ve been brainwashed or drugged (alcohol is popular with death squads!) or coerced by authority into doing something monstrous. Moral injury is a kind of trauma, itself, but t seems like most people double down? The only way to manage the cognitive dissonance and moral injury is to construct a rigid belief system in which what you did was not immoral, was not monstrous. You become more committed to the cause (or the unit).

How do you get people back from that? Do you?
posted by schadenfrau at 10:54 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]


Regarding replicatory effects.... well, if you guys haven't checked out the BBC Prison Experiment (this being the Haslam and Reicher replication mentioned upthread), you really should look at it in some detail. The experiment is much more transparent in its methodology and prisoner selection, and the results really are quite interesting. (The guards immediately felt guilty about status differences between the prisoners! The prisoners successfully staged a sit-in protest! A temporarily imported labor organizer successfully argued to everyone that really the guards and prisoners should band together against the experimenters!)

It's also much, much more painstakingly clear in its methods and attention to detail. I really rather like it.
posted by sciatrix at 12:01 PM on June 12 [3 favorites]


The Experimenter is a fictionalized account of the Milgram experiment. It's a good movie, taken as a movie and not a documentary.
posted by crush at 12:12 PM on June 12


when you find a story that right, that satisfying, that perfectly illuminative of your worldview, you should instantly be very suspicious

I am so lucky to have long ago read the work of Jan Harold Brunvand on urban legends and how they spread, which I hope vaccinated me somewhat against contagious thoughts.
posted by benzenedream at 2:26 PM on June 12 [2 favorites]


benzenedream: I am so lucky to have long ago read the work of Jan Harold Brunvand on urban legends and how they spread

The perfect denouement to this thread would be an article debunking Brunvand's work on the spread of urban legends.
posted by clawsoon at 5:14 AM on June 13 [4 favorites]


Moral injury is a kind of trauma, itself

I really don't think PTSD is entirely "about" being exposed to physical danger. Our own profound moral failures, or at least the perception thereof, sever our connection with our best self. They cause a loss of trust, not in your environment, but your own ability to navigate that environment in a way that you can accept.

, but t seems like most people double down? The only way to manage the cognitive dissonance and moral injury is to construct a rigid belief system in which what you did was not immoral, was not monstrous. You become more committed to the cause (or the unit).

Well, it's not the only way. There's also being really guilty until you eventually acknowledge the situational factors that contributed to your actions.
posted by Jpfed at 6:07 AM on June 13


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