Source: Medium, Jun 2018
The most famous psychology study of all time was a sham. Why can’t we escape the Stanford Prison Experiment?
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.
The SPE is often used to teach the lesson that our behavior is profoundly affected by the social roles and situations in which we find ourselves. But its deeper, more disturbing implication is that we all have a wellspring of potential sadism lurking within us, waiting to be tapped by circumstance.
When I spoke to Zimbardo this past May about Korpi’s and Yacco’s claims, he initially denied that they were obligated to stay.
“It’s a lie,” he said. “That’s a lie.”
But it is no longer just a question of Zimbardo’s word against theirs. This past April, a French academic and filmmaker named Thibault Le Texier published Histoire d’un Mensonge [History of a Lie], plumbing newly-released documents from Zimbardo’s archives at Stanford University to tell a dramatically different story of the experiment. After Zimbardo told me that Korpi and Yacco’s accusations were baseless, I read him a transcript unearthed by Le Texier of a taped conversation between Zimbardo and his staff on day three of the simulation: “An interesting thing was that the guys who came in yesterday, the two guys who came in and said they wanted to leave, and I said no,” Zimbardo told his staff. “There are only two conditions under which you can leave, medical help or psychiatric… I think they really believed they can’t get out.”
“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.”
Zimbardo’s standard narrative of the Stanford prison experiment offers the prisoners’ emotional responses as proof of how powerfully affected they were by the guards’ mistreatment. The shock of real imprisonment provides a simpler and far less groundbreaking explanation.
Though Zimbardo has often stated that the guards devised their own rules, in fact most of them were copied directly from Jaffe’s class assignment during that Saturday orientation meeting. Jaffe also offered the guards ideas for hassling the prisoners, including forcing them to clean thorns out of dirty blankets that had been thrown in the weeds.
“The guards have to know that every guard is going to be what we call a tough guard,” Jaffe told one such guard [skip to 8:35]. “[H]opefully what will come out of this study is some very serious recommendations for reform… so that we can get on the media and into the press with it, and say ‘Now look at what this is really about.’ … [T]ry and react as you picture the pigs reacting.”
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. According to Reicher, Zimbardo did not take it well when they attempted to publish their findings in the British Journal of Social Psychology.
“We discovered that he was privately writing to editors to try to stop us getting published by claiming that we were fraudulent,” Reicher told me.
Despite Zimbardo’s intervention, the journal decided to publish Reicher and Haslam’s article, alongside a commentary by Zimbardo in which he wrote, “I believe this alleged ‘social psychology field study’ is fraudulent and does not merit acceptance by the social psychological community in Britain, the United States or anywhere except in media psychology.”
The appeal of the Stanford prison experiment seems to go deeper than its scientific validity, perhaps because it tells us a story about ourselves that we desperately want to believe: that we, as individuals, cannot really be held accountable for the sometimes reprehensible things we do. As troubling as it might seem to accept Zimbardo’s fallen vision of human nature, it is also profoundly liberating. It means we’re off the hook. Our actions are determined by circumstance. Our fallibility is situational. Just as the Gospel promised to absolve us of our sins if we would only believe, the SPE offered a form of redemption tailor-made for a scientific era, and we embraced it.