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Stanford Prison Experiment findings a “sham” – but how much of social psychology is legitimate anyway?

Philip G. Zimbardo
Philip G. Zimbardo

From Ben Blum at Medium:

Whether you learned about Philip Zimbardo’s famous “Stanford Prison Experiment” [1973] in an introductory psych class or just absorbed it from the cultural ether, you’ve probably heard the basic story.

Zimbardo, a young Stanford psychology professor, built a mock jail in the basement of Jordan Hall and stocked it with nine “prisoners,” and nine “guards,” all male, college-age respondents to a newspaper ad who were assigned their roles at random and paid a generous daily wage to participate. The senior prison “staff” consisted of Zimbardo himself and a handful of his students.

The study was supposed to last for two weeks, but after Zimbardo’s girlfriend stopped by six days in and witnessed the conditions in the “Stanford County Jail,” she convinced him to shut it down. Since then, the tale of guards run amok and terrified prisoners breaking down one by one has become world-famous, a cultural touchstone that’s been the subject of books, documentaries, and feature films — even an episode of Veronica Mars.

But Korpi’s celebrated breakdown was a “sham.”

Now a forensic psychologist himself, Korpi told me his dramatic performance in the SPE was indeed inspired by fear, but not of abusive guards. Instead, he was worried about failing to get into grad school…

According to Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher, psychologists who co-directed an attempted replication of the Stanford prison experiment in Great Britain in 2001, a critical factor in making people commit atrocities is a leader assuring them that they are acting in the service of a higher moral cause with which they identify — for instance, scientific progress or prison reform. 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. More.

Funny that. The nobler the cause, the worse the acts we are tempted by. That said, from Brian Resnick at Vox:

Many of the classic show-stopping experiments in psychology have lately turned out to be wrong, fraudulent, or outdated. And in recent years, social scientists have begun to reckon with the truth that their old work needs a redo, the “replication crisis.” But there’s been a lag — in the popular consciousness and in how psychology is taught by teachers and textbooks. It’s time to catch up.

Recently, science journalist Gina Perry found that the infamous “Robbers Cave“ experiment in the 1950s — in which young boys at summer camp were essentially manipulated into joining warring factions — was a do-over from a failed previous version of an experiment, which the scientists never mentioned in an academic paper. That’s a glaring omission. It’s wrong to throw out data that refutes your hypothesis and only publicize data that supports it.

Many have known about Stanford Prison Experiment doubts for years but it wasn’t at first clear how much of the rest of social science is similarly infected. In a discipline with plenty of politics, it has seemed best to use such terms as “sham” sparingly. Maybe save them for something other than normal lecture room fare.

Seen against the background of their times, these experiments’ take-home point was that the average North American is easily turned into a dangerous authoritarian zombie. They answered both a wish and a need. The wish was to prevent future Holocausts and the need was to demonstrate the value of lots of high-level intervention in people’s lives in order to prevent them. In general, the average North American is not easily turned into a dangerous authoritarian zombie but that got lost in the shuffle of paper somewhere.

Hat tip: Ken Francis

See also: Remember the Stanford Prison Experiment? (2011)

Are two out of three people really secret torturers? The famous “obedience” experiments by Stanley Milgram: what did they really show?

Seven myths of social psychology


Broad agreement that politics is strangling the social sciences


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