Many of you will have heard of the famous Stanford prison experiment in 1971 when Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University, randomly assigned one group of students to be inmates and the other group to be guards who had total power over the prisoners for two weeks. The setting was a mock prison (actually the basement of a university building). But after six days the experiment had to be called off because, as claimed by Zimbardo, the ‘guards’ used such sadistic methods against the ‘inmates’ that the latter were on the verge of breakdowns. The experiment has been cited numerous times to warn of the dangers of giving people unchecked power over others and the need for prison reform.
Now this article by Ben Blum says that things were not that bad and that the supposedly traumatized victims were just acting that way. It is a long, fascinating, but also disturbing article about how the legend of the experiment grew out of all proportion to the reality, aided by exaggerated and misleading statements by Zimbardo. In the process, it might have harmed actual efforts at meaningful prison reform.
It is more accurate to say that, for all its reformist ideals, the Stanford prison experiment contributed to the polarizing intellectual currents of its time. According to a 2017 survey conducted by Cullen and his colleagues Teresa Kulig and Travis Pratt, 95% of the many criminology papers that have cited the Stanford prison experiment over the years have accepted its basic message that prisons are inherently inhumane.
“What struck me later in life was how all of us lost our scientific skepticism,” Cullen says. “We became as ideological, in our way, as the climate change deniers. Zimbardo’s and Martinson’s studies made so much intuitive sense that no one took a step back and said, ‘Well, this could be wrong.’”
Most criminologists today agree that prisons are not, in fact, as hopeless as Zimbardo and Martinson made them out to be. Some prison programs do reliably help inmates better their lives. Though international comparisons are difficult to make, Norway’s maximum-security Halden prison, where convicted murderers wear casual clothing, receive extensive job-skill training, share meals with unarmed guards, and wander at will during daylight hours through a scenic landscape of pine trees and blueberry bushes, offers a hopeful sign. Norwegians prisoners seldom get in fights and reoffend at lower rates than anywhere else in the world. To begin to ameliorate the evils of mass incarceration, Cullen argues, will require researching what makes some forms of prison management better than others, rather than, as the Stanford prison experiment did, dismissing them all as inherently abusive.
Apparently the truth about the flaws of the experiment had been known in the field of psychology but the powerful mystique of the experiment kept the rumblings quiet and it continued to be a cited in textbooks. The field of psychology has been going through what can only be described as a major crisis in which conclusions about human behavior that seemed to be firmly rooted in evidence turn out to be not reproducible or invalid because of poor design or otherwise untenable.