Reality of the Stanford Prison Experiment
August 28, 2004 10:19 PM   Subscribe

Everytime I read about the Stanford Prison Experiment, I become skeptical. I can believe the kinds of things that are described happened, I just can't believe they happened so fast. Is there any evidence things didn't happen as described, that the happenings were exaggerated?
posted by weston to Human Relations (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My fiancee is a criminologist, and studied the Stanford experiment at great length. She says that it happened exactly as it was described.

Power does terrible things to people.
posted by Jairus at 10:29 PM on August 28, 2004

It is a very well-documented experiment. Most criticisms of it are not that things were exagerated, but that he did it all.
posted by raaka at 10:39 PM on August 28, 2004

Criticism of the experiment
posted by raaka at 10:40 PM on August 28, 2004

Response by poster: Doesn't it seem odd, though, that the prisoners are described as behaving as if they didn't remember this was a role-play, and could check out when they wanted to? The account I linked says "The parents, who had visited the prison themselves, seem to also have forgot that theirs sons had the right to withdraw from the experiment. "
posted by weston at 10:43 PM on August 28, 2004

weston: The prisoners were hardly thinking clearly. It also seems odd that you can force false murder/rape confessions from people without any kind of physical coercion, but with enough emotional/social pressure, people stop thinking rationally.

As for the parents, I imagine that they were driven mostly by concern, and were thinking "our son is obviously trapped in this terrible situation", not "this voluntary experiment sure did go south fast."
posted by Jairus at 10:54 PM on August 28, 2004

I'm with Weston. I think that the experiment makes such a nice compact moral lesson, that criticisms of it have been either dismissed or underplayed. Add to that, that it is impossible to duplicate the experiment anymore, given the borderline ethics involved, and you have something which can, and probably has, rise to become canonical and undisputed.

Some articles mention that many of the guards were kind and that there were dehumanizing aspects of the experiment which make it even more bizarre. Add to that, the sparse documentation on the background of the people whose actions were the most egregious and all we have is a moral tale.

I'd love to see an actual document of the work of Jairus' fiancee's work. Otherwise its just hearsay on the order of "Someone I know, with these credentials says its true so shut up!" (Please dont take that personally)
posted by vacapinta at 10:54 PM on August 28, 2004

No offense taken. :)

If I had a scanner, I'd gladly show you. As it is, the best I can do is take a fuzzy digicam photo of a milk-crate full of research and writing on the topic.

However, I do not. All I have is my word that she did, in fact, study it -- and her prof worked directly with some of the researchers involved. The Stanford Prison Experiment has more details on the experiment itself, and is written by the lead researcher.
posted by Jairus at 11:03 PM on August 28, 2004

Incidentally, if you have any questions about the experiment, you can always contact Phil Zimbardo directly.
posted by Jairus at 11:05 PM on August 28, 2004

Weston, these quotes are directly from the SPE site, and might help answer your questions:

Less than 36 hours into the experiment, Prisoner #8612 began suffering from acute emotional disturbance, disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying, and rage. In spite of all of this, we had already come to think so much like prison authorities that we thought he was trying to "con" us -- to fool us into releasing him. [...] During the next count, Prisoner #8612 told other prisoners, "You can't leave. You can't quit.

When the dozen or so visitors came, full of good humor at what seemed to be a novel, fun experience, we systematically brought their behavior under situational control. They had to register, were made to wait half an hour, were told that only two visitors could see any one prisoner, were limited to only ten minutes of visiting time, and had to be under the surveillance of a guard during the visit. Before any parents could enter the visiting area, they also had to discuss their son's case with the Warden.

When one mother told me she had never seen her son looking so bad, I responded by shifting the blame from the situation to her son. "What's the matter with your boy? Doesn't he sleep well?" Then I asked the father, "Don't you think your boy can handle this?" He bristled, "Of course he can -- he's a real tough kid, a leader." Turning to the mother, he said, "Come on Honey, we've wasted enough time already." And to me, "See you again at the next visiting time."

At this point in the study, I invited a Catholic priest who had been a prison chaplain to evaluate how realistic our prison situation was, and the result was truly Kafkaesque. The chaplain interviewed each prisoner individually, and I watched in amazement as half the prisoners introduced themselves by number rather than name. After some small talk, he popped the key question: "Son, what are you doing to get out of here?" When the prisoners responded with puzzlement, he explained that the only way to get out of prison was with the help of a lawyer. He then volunteered to contact their parents to get legal aid if they wanted him to, and some of the prisoners accepted his offer.
posted by Jairus at 11:17 PM on August 28, 2004

"Doesn't it seem odd..."

The whole thing does. If people acted in perfectly logical ways no one would study psychology.

"criticisms of it have been either dismissed or underplayed"

That's simply not true.

"borderline ethics "

It was not boderline unethical, it was unethical not to mention unscientific.
posted by raaka at 11:24 PM on August 28, 2004

I've always been skeptical of studies showing exposure to violent films caused people to become more violent and sadistic, because if they did those studies wouldn't be allowed to be repeated.

Like, we constantly have debates on what causes violence, but as soon as that begins to be produced in an experiment on a macroscopic level, the experiment has to be stopped because it's unethical.
posted by bobo123 at 11:53 PM on August 28, 2004

The BBC reenacted the Stanford Prison Experiment two years ago, and the results were similar to the original experiment, but the other way around: in the BBC case, the prisoners were the bullies.

I think it was because the guards were all too conscious of the results of the first experiment, leaving them vulnerable to the "divide and conquer" tricks that the inmates were playing with them. The inmates became quite a brutal and hostile bunch, until the experiment had to be stopped because of an eruption of physical violence (the prisoners were trying to take control of the prison).
posted by NekulturnY at 4:07 AM on August 29, 2004

weston - although I don't have any evidence to back this up, I'm a bit suss on the accuracy of the records of the experiment also. It reminds me a lot of 'The Wave' experiment, the accounts of which many people believe were 'dramatised'.

I've read several accounts of the experiment, all of which seem a little 'soft' in places. I don't think the experiment results were faked as such, but my gut feeling is that the recounting of the events have been tweaked a little to make for better reading, and a nice cautionary tale.
posted by backOfYourMind at 5:35 AM on August 29, 2004

The Third Wave experiment is also what this thread brought to my mind. Basic outline, more in-depth, a personal account, an odd critical account.
The Wave is based on the real experience of a high school class in Palo Alto, CA (USA), in April 1967. History teacher Ron Jones came up with a seemingly innocent classroom experiment to explain his students why in the 1930's and 40's many (young) Germans were so under the spell of Adolf Hitler that they allowed or even helped the systematic murdering of millions of innocent Jews.
posted by jessamyn at 5:54 AM on August 29, 2004

Wow, jessamyn, I'd never heard of the Third Wave experiment before. Chilling stuff.

The video of the Stanford Prison Experiment is also very chilling and creepy to watch.
posted by Vidiot at 6:11 AM on August 29, 2004

Honestly, it seems to me that, as a third party, suspicions of the results are what are 'soft,' based entirely as they are on gut feeling and intuition. Meanwhile there is a ton of documentation of the experiment, and there have been decades during which it could have been debunked or in some way discredited.

If anything -- and this is said pretty often -- it seems as though the experiment only backs up something already proven by 20th century history: that even normal people can lose all sense of reality and morality, if put in a situation where both are suspended. What's so far-fetched about that?
posted by josh at 7:34 AM on August 29, 2004

I don't like what this experiment says about people, so I'm sure there must be something wrong with it, and I don't care how many people have studied it and vouched for it.

"Human kind cannot bear very much reality." --TS Eliot
posted by languagehat at 7:56 AM on August 29, 2004

All we are doing is looking for more evidence of the claims, languagehat. I *believe* what it says about people - I've seen people behave even worse than this when allowed to experience some sort of power for the first time in their life.

I'm just not sure that in our eagerness to document what we all feel to be true, we're not getting all the facts about the experiment. There's nothing wrong with critical thinking, is there?
posted by vacapinta at 8:11 AM on August 29, 2004

Read this, watch Dogville, Clockwork Orange, Blue Velvet and take a hit of acid and you will ready for the next four years.
posted by JohnR at 8:14 AM on August 29, 2004

If you pick up a good book about Social Psychology, you will find the Stanford Prison Experiment in the chapter on "Authority" or "Obedience" - the same chapter as the Milgram experiments. In my mind, it belongs to the same class of experiments - demonstrating the power of the social situation on individual behavior. Overall, there is enough evidence of the "power of social situation" that I buy into it. The Prison experiment is probably the most dramatic example, and was never replicated for obvious reasons (apart from the BBC replication last year).

But the narrative about the power of the social situation, power disparities etc. includes many other studies. Asch and the judgment of line lengths , studies on deindividuation, Sherif's study of groups and many others. Taken together, there is an enormous amount of evidence about people's strong, immediate reaction of people to powerful social situations.

Interestingly, two of the prominent researchers of this field: Milgram and Zimbardo were schoolmates (a school in Bronx, New York).
posted by rsinha at 11:23 AM on August 29, 2004

jessamyn: Awesome. Thanks for posting the info about the Third Wave. If you had not, I would have, and I probably wouldn't have done such a thorough job at it.

I first read the Third Wave story in the original Whole Earth Catalog as a kid. (Yeah, that Whole Earth Catalog, the one that begat The WELL and all that cool stuff.)

So, if things like the Standford Prison Experiment and The Third Wave are so easy, what does that say about society and civilization in all it's forms?

Frankly I find it astounding sometimes that we're not all dead yet.
posted by loquacious at 12:16 PM on August 29, 2004

Response by poster: languagehat, I suppose maybe somewhere in my mind I'm trying to hold onto that good ol' liberal "people are basically good" idea. :)

But mostly, my concerns are as vacapinta said.
posted by weston at 2:29 PM on August 29, 2004

Response by poster: Also: an old thread on the third wave.
posted by weston at 2:32 PM on August 29, 2004

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posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:19 PM on August 29, 2004

Response by poster: Yeah, sorry about that. I emailed Matt and assume he'll fix it.

Over in the latest thread about this stuff, profwhat links to a criticism of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
posted by weston at 5:34 PM on August 29, 2004

My girlfriend's father was in the SPE (he's the prisoner who goes crazy. Now he's a forensic psychologist.) and he is critical of the way it's always been described, publicized, etc. I think he said that he complained a lot about the way the experiment was being run and asked to leave, but they wouldn't let him, so he faked his outburst to get out of the experiment, but in the analysis and video it's always presented as real. I don't remember all the things he said about it, but I know he's still really angry at the guy who ran it for the way he's publicized it and presented it and he's very critical of the video that's always shown on TV and in schools.
posted by jeb at 9:54 AM on August 30, 2004

The SPE has always been poor Science in my mind becuase it hasn't be repeatedly replicated. It's like everyone just took those cold fusion guys at face value. How do we know that the results of the experiment weren't a result of an unlikely or even unique set of personalities? Yet everyone trots it out everytime a prison abuse story makes the news. Drives me crazy.
posted by Mitheral at 3:13 PM on August 30, 2004

Weston, I got a hold of a Quicktime .mov of the documentary about the SPE -- let me know if you (or anyone else) would like to download a copy.
posted by Jairus at 9:29 PM on August 30, 2004

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