The Stanford prison experiment is not what it seemed


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.

Comments

  1. Quirky says

    Prisons, and the threat of prison, are primarily used to promote obedience training..
    In light of the results of the Milgram Experiments I question the veracity of Blum’s article with respect to his conclusions. This is historical revisionism at work.
    The opposite position is more credible. This short documentary of Stanley Milgram’s experiments exposes the dangers of believing in the myth of Authority.

    https://youtu.be/fCVlI-_4GZQ

  2. says

    Quirky@#1:
    Milgram’s experiments were all pseudo-science. There was no conclusion that could be reached from them experimentally. So, they were worthless, even had they been conducted without fraud. The looseness of the experimental protocol (it can hardly be called such!) is a dead giveaway.

    Milgram appeared to just want to play with peoples’ heads. The original idea for the experiment was to see if he could measure something or other regarding authoritarianism in Germans. (Typical psychologist: “let’s measure something and we don’t even know what it is!”) When he couldn’t get funding for such a dodgy exercise, he ran the experiment anyway, using students.

    Milgram was an outstanding embarrassment to a field that is full of embarrassments.

  3. says

    Mano Singham
    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

    It is very unpopular to attack psychology. There is a great deal of emotional investment in wanting to believe that it contains truth, and criticizing it usually results in “Why do you want me to lose my mind!?” from proponents, or proactive cherry-picking, i.e. “You are confusing popular psychology with real psychology. Nobody teaches that stuff anymore.” With regard to the former, stick to interventions that are evidence-based. With regard to the latter: it’s still widely taught. In fact just as I saw your posting and went to read it, my browser offered up this related psychobabble: maslow and self-actualization. Sad and amazing to see psychologists are still flogging that. And, of course, psychological thinking now has a great example in the person of Jordan Peterson…

  4. Quirky says

    Marcus, what protocols would you erect if you wanted to determine to what degree persons would obey an authority figure in situations where they were asked to harm another person?

  5. Kreator says

    Marcus, all you have is confirmation bias and disrespect for those of us with mental health issues. Why should anyone take your criticisms about it seriously?

  6. Quirky says

    Maybe the question we should all ask ourselves and one another is:
    .
    Does the aggregate of human harm resulting historically from the actions of those following some authority figure outweigh the aggregate of human harm that has resulted from individual actions not directed by another authority?
    Wish we could take a poll on this.

  7. TGAP_ Dad says

    Note that I am not rejecting the conclusion stated above, that any imprisonment is universally cruel. I feel that I have to point out that the premise above, that the Stanford experiment “wasn’t as bad” as later portrayals of it, is highly reminiscent of holocaust denier language. I’m curious how that particular premise was reached.

  8. ionopachys says

    I hate paywalls. I understand publishers need to make money, but it is so frustrating when bloggers link to interesting articles that I cannot read.

  9. says

    Quirky@#5:
    Marcus, what protocols would you erect if you wanted to determine to what degree persons would obey an authority figure in situations where they were asked to harm another person?

    I wouldn’t want to do that because it’s not a useful experiment. So don’t ask me what protocols I’d use – that presupposes the experiment has a point.

  10. KG says

    It is very unpopular to attack psychology. – Marcus Ranum@3

    If you mean by that, that when you make ignorant blanket criticisms of entire fields of study (as, for example, Jordan Peterson does), you’re going to get pushback, then yes.

    In fact just as I saw your posting and went to read it, my browser offered up this related psychobabble: maslow and self-actualization. Sad and amazing to see psychologists are still flogging that.

    Yes, yes, of course what your browser offers up accurately reflects the current state of opinion within academic psychology.

  11. says

    Quirky:
    Does the aggregate of human harm resulting historically from the actions of those following some authority figure outweigh the aggregate of human harm that has resulted from individual actions not directed by another authority?

    Interesting question. But it invites consequentialist reasoning that is going to be a bunch of opinions. How can you “weigh” harm, and aggregate it?

  12. says

    KG@#12:
    If you mean by that, that when you make ignorant blanket criticisms of entire fields of study

    Actually, I trade in facts. Pointing out that huge amounts of psychology’s core studies are failing to replicate and that there is tons of pseudoscience in its foundational principles – yeah, that’s “ignorant”
    As far as blanket criticism, yes, that’s what one does when a category of philosophy has foundational problems. One does not bother to argue which version of homeopathy is BS, either. You point at the underlying principles and explain why they are BS and move on from there.

    As I said above, there are evidenced-based bits of psychology: go ahead and believe in them. But this article is a perfect example of: some part of psychology gets debunked, psychology supporters say “that’s not psychology!” – well, not anymore.

    Peterson is a professor of psychology and I only have a lowly batchelors, so can he be a bigger embarrassment please?

  13. says

    Kreator@#6:
    Marcus, all you have is confirmation bias and disrespect for those of us with mental health issues. Why should anyone take your criticisms about it seriously?

    It’s bizzare that you’d accuse me of confirmation bias in a comment attached tona posting that basically is saying I was right. Debunked experiments like Milgrams are evidence: evidence that psychology has a great deal of bunk in it. That’s not “confirmation bias” that’s “being right.”

    As far as your imputation that I am disrespectful of people with mental illness: no. I do not recommend anyone stop using whatever psychiatric interventions they feel gives them a better life. You will never, anywhere, find anything where I have said anything remotely like that. I consistently observe that people should do as they see fit and that evidence-based interventions work. I understand that maybe you don’t like my views, but you’re wrong to expand “distrusts psychology” to “disrespect for people with mental issues.”

    If you want to believe that, I can’t stop you. But you’re wrong.

  14. says

    Quirky:

    Does the aggregate of human harm resulting historically from the actions of those following some authority figure outweigh the aggregate of human harm that has resulted from individual actions not directed by another authority?

    Boy, would I like an answer to that one. Unfortunately, it’s a minefield of human behaviour you’d have to wade through to even come close. Some people derive a great deal of enjoyment in sadistic, cruel treatment of others, you can pretty much count on those types of people attaching themselves to as much authority as they can, also garnering power for themselves. Then there are others who only know to keep their heads down, best they can. Some people join an immoral war because it’s all they can do, and they try to do the right things in the midst of great wrong. A whole lot of people, when found looking at a crushing, terrifying regime looming over their head, they go along to get along or until they can get out.

    You see what I mean? You’d have to start gathering up every thread of human behaviour in order to get an accurate answer. People end up doing, or allowing wicked shit all the time , for many a reason. There are other people who have just been waiting for a big enough bully to sanction and shore up their own beliefs and desires, ‘merica is full of those right now.

    Terry Pratchett had it right when Vetinari figured out what most people want: they want tomorrow to be like today. In other words, stability.

  15. Quirky says

    Marcus @ #13 and Caine @ #16, I should have been much more specific with respect to the aggregate of human harm.. I will try again.

    Does the aggregate of human theft and murder resulting historically from the actions of those following some religious or governmental authority figure outweigh the aggregate of human theft and murder that has resulted from individual actions not directed by some such perceived authority?
    .
    The sort of religious/governmental theft and murder I am talking about is taxation and democide or genocide. Try comparing that with the known thefts and murders committed by individuals upon other individuals.
    .
    It shouldn’t be too hard to weigh those aspects of harm.

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