The “Stanford Prison Experiment” is arguably the second-best known psychology story. I think Pavlov and his dogs is still best known. It has drools, it has rules! (The rhesus monkey thing is my personal favorite, because I think everyone should get more hugs. The other two studies do not include hugs).
Just in the past day, I came across two mentions of The Stanford Prison Thing, one in a discussion of social pressure and the other in a discussion of how the Stanford Prison Experiment is bullshit.
The story most often told is that it was an experiment in which college students behaved with brutality toward their peers, simply by being assigned the role of guards. The experiment had to be halted because it was too distressing to participants and it was never exactly replicated because it would be irresponsible to do an experiment that was so damaging to participants.
Now, the student-guards did not just hide the remotes or eat cupcakes in front of the student-prisoners, they engaged in some real nastiness, like stripping them, taunting them while naked, and keeping one of the prisoners in a tight closet all night as a punishment.
While it has been presented that the students were given no instruction, that turns out to be a lie. They were told what to do, which brings the obedience variable right back into the mix. They didn’t spontaneously go nasty. These kids were responding to the clearly stated expectations of an authority figure, quite the opposite of spontaneous behavior, psychology-wise.
A very thorough and thoughtful dissection of the problems with the Stanford Prison Thing (we cannot call it an experiment, because it was actually a demonstration or dramatic creation, not an experiment) is presented in this podcast.
There are a few things that make the Stanford Prison Thing even more upsetting that it already was. Many teachers and communicators acknowledge that it is bad science, but feel that it is an important story because it so clearly and simply illustrates the darkest side of environmental influence. But what if that particular bent of human nature isn’t real?
I admit that I have thought of the human tendency to abuse power as a given, a given that we need to work harder to combat since we know it’s there. But is it? Is it innate? If the premise of the experiment is manufactured and unproven, does that mean that humans do not have a default setting to cruelly subjugate each other?
They played very fast and loose and created a case to show how setting and roles influence behavior. Then they pushed an exaggerated version of the results, claiming that the best and brightest would become “tyrannical” under certain conditions.
It’s not proven truth, and not even in their thing did most of the students play into expectations and adopt new personas. Only four of the kids veered toward tyranny and zero kids refused to share cupcakes.
If we aren’t wired for inflicting suffering on those in our charge, does that mean that we are personally responsible for the rotten things we do? Is that the scarier idea?
Be careful what you believe, kids!! If you believe you have the tendency to stomp on other kids you might be steering yourself right where you don’t want to go. Look away!!
Keep a grip on your impulses!! They belong to you.
More on the scientific problems of splashy studies: https://www.vox.com/2018/6/13/17449118/stanford-prison-experiment-fraud-psychology-replication
Feel free to add a question below in the comments!!