Why the Stanford Prison Experiment is a Lie

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The field of psychology has, for the past few years, been undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. As I’ve discussed before, they’re having a problem with reproducibility — interesting studies that seem to tell us something profound about the human psyche end up being unable to be verified, due either to poor study design, actual underhanded tactics on the part of scientists who are desperate for an interesting result, or just the cruel reality of weird statistical anomalies.

I’ve talked about a few examples over the past few years, but recently we’ve had a few very high profile cases. Pretty much every adult with even a passing interest in psychology has heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment, performed in the 1970s before we had things like ethics in science. That’s always been the defining characteristic of the experiment, for people like me who took some psych classes in college — here’s a cool thing someone did that we can’t do anymore because it’s pretty unethical, in fact, to make a bunch of students pretend to be either prisoners or prison guards, and let the “guards” enact whatever rules they want to control the behavior of the prisoners. And there’s the ethical question of how it ended, after just a few days when the prisoners went, well, sort of insane. This, despite the fact that it was meant to go on for two weeks, but the girlfriend of the professor running it (Philip Zimbardo) saw the mess that was unfolding and convinced him to pull the plug.

It turns out, though, that there were other ethical problems with the study that have only fully been proven very recently. A French filmmaker by the name of Thibault Le Texier has published a book in which he sorted through all the old records, transcripts, and tapes from the experiment in order to show once and for all that the Prison Experiment is a lie.

Most crucially, he found unambiguous evidence that Zimbardo lied about whether the “prisoners” were allowed to leave at any time. He claimed that they were, but the transcripts show him instructing the others to not let them. Zimbardo claimed that he meant they had signed a contract agreeing that they had to use a specific “safe phrase,” but sorry, the actual contracts found have no such phrase in them.

Zimbardo also claimed that the guards came up with all the rules and punishments themselves, which again was shown to be a lie — he had in fact hired an ex-prison inmate to work with them and gave them a list of rules inspired by his own experience.

The final nail in the coffin is the confession of the most famous of the “prisoners,” Douglas Korpi, who Zimbardo claimed experienced a complete mental breakdown during the experiment. Korpi has gone on record to state that he was play-acting, attempting to act the way that Zimbardo clearly wanted him to act. Any real stress, Korpi said, was due to the fact that the “guards” wouldn’t let him have his textbooks, and he had planned to spend the experiment studying for finals that took place right after the experiment was supposed to end. Once he realized he couldn’t just kick back and study in the “prison,” he wanted to leave the experiment. Zimbardo refused to allow it.

There are obviously huge ethical problems with any experiment being run this way, but this one is especially bad because of the rippling effect the famous study has had throughout our society. Zimbardo’s conclusion from the study, which he has championed at every opportunity on television and even as an expert witness in court rooms, is that we are all just slaves to our environments. Good, “normal” people can do horrible things just because of the situation they find themselves in, whether that be Nazi Germany, Abu Ghraib, or a gang about to rob a bank. It’s a comforting thought for some people, but more and more evidence shows that it’s just wrong. No one can replicate the prison experiment because it was a sham. Good people in bad situations don’t turn into monsters. The people marching in Charlottesville with tiki torches aren’t just good kids who got caught up in a parade — they’re Nazi bigots who joined of their own volition.

To be clear, I don’t personally believe in free will — I think that everything we do is the result of things that happened before us, and I don’t believe in “evil” that can’t be changed. I do believe bigots are bigots for a reason — they were raised that way, they are gullible and end up in the wrong crowd, they have extremely low IQ and bad influences, etc. But I don’t think that any one situation can fully change a person overnight, as Zimbardo claimed with his “experiment.” If I were to suddenly be drafted into ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs

Enforcement), for instance, I would die before I ripped a child out of her father’s arms just because they were attempting to immigrate to America. I mean, I would actually die. I don’t think the people in ICE are evil, but I do think that for the most part they are bad people who volunteered for the opportunity to do bad things to other human beings, and if they were good people then they would quit their jobs rather than commit the atrocities they are currently committing.

Thanks to Zimbardo, the people of ICE, and those working for the Trump Administration, can excuse their own behavior as just being the product of their current environment, and once they leave that environment they deserve to live a guilt-free life. That’s a dangerous idea, and a wrong idea. To borrow from the First Lady’s recent initiative and make it slightly more sensical, they need to be better.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. Honestly, my reaction to things like the Stanford Prison Experiment has always been horror. I don’t know who considers it “comforting”, except Abu Ghraib guards.

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