Key Psychological Study is a Fraud. Who’da Thunk It?

Confession time: This is a case, somewhat, of personal confirmation bias for me. I should have read this, when I came across it years ago, with a solid double dollop of skepticism. Instead, I was too willing to just swallow it as presented as a yet another sad example of fallen human nature. Cautionary tale, folks.

This one:

The Stanford prison experiment was an attempt to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison officers. It was conducted at Stanford University between August 14–20, 1971, by a research group led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo using college students. It was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research as an investigation into the causes of difficulties between guards and prisoners in the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps. The experiment is a topic covered in most introductory (social) psychology textbooks.

Guards and prisoners had been chosen randomly from the volunteering college students. Some participants developed their roles as the officers and enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, by the officers’ request, actively harassed other prisoners who tried to stop it. Zimbardo, in his role as the superintendent, allowed abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners left mid-experiment, and the whole exercise was abandoned after six days following the objections of graduate student Christina Maslach, whom Zimbardo was dating (and later married). Certain portions of the experiment were filmed, and excerpts of footage are publicly available.

The way it’s usually presented is this experiment revealed that apparently normal people (you know, white male college students. What could be more normal than that?) harbor wellsprings of sadism that only require an opportunity to reveal themselves. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of (white college student) men? The Stanford Prison Experiment does! It is referenced in connection with the My Lai Massacre and the Armenian Genocide (no, really) to explain how American troops could shoot unarmed villagers and nice Turks could strip naked and crucify teenage girls.

More often these days, even the little bit of professional scientific restraint shown by psychologists is shed in favor of using this study as a stick to beat a particular drum. We’re supposed to believe that the Power Structure creates bad behavior. It’s Rousseau all over again, but now wearing the Sacred Lab Coat of Science! College students – gentle, loving college students who wouldn’t hurt a fly, no doubt –  would, in a state of nature (1) never dream of being sadistic, power-obsessed meanies, become sadistics, power-obsessed meanies once given POWER over other students.

It’s the power dynamic all the way down, man. Any time you see people acting sadistically, killing people, stuff like that, it’s really not their fault! Theories of sin or any other form of personal responsibility that place even part of the blame on the individual are WRONG. You want people to behave better, New Soviet Man style? Expecting them (me. us.) to behave isn’t going to get you anywhere. You need to destroy the Power Structure! This attitude, Marx’s simplification and streamlining of Hegel’s notion of the Spirit acting through History, effectively absolves individuals from all responsibility for Bad Stuff. If, as Hegel posits, the Spirit – God Himself! – is behind all this History, (frog) marching the World dialectically forward, then what difference does individual human actions – human will – make? The only virtue, such as it is, would be getting on the History train. You get run over otherwise. Marx’s trick is to remove the vaguely Judeo-Christian flavoured God of Hegel and just assigning agency to the not-at-all-a-God-History, who nonetheless is a jealous God one must not get on the wrong side of.

But I saw none of this clearly. Until now: 

It was late in the evening of August 16th, 1971, and twenty-two-year-old Douglas Korpi, a slim, short-statured Berkeley graduate with a mop of pale, shaggy hair, was locked in a dark closet in the basement of the Stanford psychology department, naked beneath a thin white smock bearing the number 8612, screaming his head off.

“I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside!” he yelled, kicking furiously at the door. “Don’t you know? I want to get out! This is all f**ked up inside! I can’t stand another night! I just can’t take it anymore!”

It was a defining moment in what has become perhaps the best-known psychology study of all time….

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. It has been invoked to explain the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War, the Armenian genocide, and the horrors of the Holocaust. And the ultimate symbol of the agony that man helplessly inflicts on his brother is Korpi’s famous breakdown, set off after only 36 hours by the cruelty of his peers.

There’s just one problem: Korpi’s breakdown was a sham.

“Anybody who is a clinician would know that I was faking,” he told me last summer, in the first extensive interview he has granted in years. “If you listen to the tape, it’s not subtle. I’m not that good at acting. I mean, I think I do a fairly good job, but I’m more hysterical than psychotic.”

Read the article.  What interest and saddens me is that the subjects of this fraud did not in fact out the dude and drag him into court for illegally imprisoning them. Why? Just a guess here: because they, too, had academic ambitions. Certainly Kopri did. Academics seem to have a certain immunity to having to behave like adults and accept consequences, because they can so easily destroy the careers of the little people under them.

So, has anybody tried to replicate this thing? Glad you asked:

According to Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher, psychologists who co-directed an attempted replication of the Stanford prison experiment in Great Britain in 2001, a critical factor in making people commit atrocities is a leader assuring them that they are acting in the service of a higher moral cause with which they identify — for instance, scientific progress or prison reform. We have been taught that guards abused prisoners in the Stanford prison experiment because of the power of their roles, but Haslam and Reicher argue that their behavior arose instead from their identification with the experimenters, which Jaffe and Zimbardo encouraged at every turn. Eshelman, who described himself on an intake questionnaire as a “scientist at heart,” may have identified more powerfully than anyone, but Jaffe himself put it well in his self-evaluation: “I am startled by the ease with which I could turn off my sensitivity and concern for others for ‘a good cause.’”

Finally, here’s the real issue that comes up whenever the so-called Replication Crisis is brought up: careers get built on half-baked if not out and out dishonest ‘studies’ done to promote, in some order, a particular political agenda and the researcher’s career. Those screaming loudest about the evil, evil people trying and failing to replicate their studies are exactly those people who have ridden the fame of such flawed and dishonest studies to prominence and tenure.

Because that’s the way it works in the soft ‘sciences’.

The Stanford prison experiment established Zimbardo as perhaps the most prominent living American psychologist. He became the primary author of one of the field’s most popular and long-running textbooks, Psychology: Core Concepts, and the host of a 1990 PBS video series, Discovering Psychology, which gained wide usage in high school and college classes and is still screened today. Both featured the Stanford prison experiment.

  1. What is the natural environment for elite psychology students? Smoking dope on daddy’s yacht? That would indeed be pretty mellow. Meow.
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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

8 thoughts on “Key Psychological Study is a Fraud. Who’da Thunk It?”

  1. The thing that always made me skeptical of the experiment was simply the fact that it was an experiment with college kids: that is, they knew it wasn’t real, knew they were expected to ‘play a part,’ and went into it with (as far as I can tell) no actual experience or knowledge of what the real situation was like. So, it seemed to me that, even if you were to accept the results at face value, you couldn’t really apply them to real life, because a real prison environment (or other such structure) would necessarily have many other factors involved.

  2. I think the fallacy in replicating this experiment is similar to, say, replicating. The rock and roll scene of days past. Despite what people would want to say, the environment that went into early rock and roll cannot be replicated because the environment that informed the attitude cannot be replicated : every replication is based in a presumption of some static human being able to be in a similar atemporal culture-less environment.

    Also, I am skeptical of the experiment being bias merely because it involved white college people. Perhaps I am not sure what you are indicating by that notice, but I think we need be careful about the tendency to over generalize (also) the “agenda-bad” white man and the “innocent-good” people of color.

    History tells us people of all sorts do bad and good things despite their idealized culture, to their ‘own people” as well as to people they see as different.

    I think even reason does not exclude being a moron.

    Perhaps you could inform us as to you intension of the notice that it was done with white college men? That would help to clarify the meaning of your post.

    1. The rock and roll example is good.

      Sorry, I seem to have said almost the opposite of what I mean. As a white guy myself, I absolutely don’t think that white people, per se, hopelessly bias the results. But white college students who volunteer for pay to do psych studies – I strongly suspect they are not a representative sample of people in general.

      I should also say: the college student part is a larger piece of making these guys not representative (especially in the neighborhood of Stanford!) than the white or even male part. For a study like this, you’d really want as wide a sample as possible, or a disclaimer limiting your conclusions to just the population sampled. Imagine, for example, if the test were run using Oaxacans or even just people from Appalachia.

  3. You’re overlooking the fact that Zimbardo was the real-life person in power and was willing to subject the subjects ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’ to abuse, all in the name of Science. If one steps back from the ‘fake’ study his behavior actually confirms the hypothesis: people in power over others tend to lose their humanity and become morally corrupted.

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