Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Like just about everyone who took an Intro to Psychology course in college, I learned about Philip Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment” as a parable about the dangers of groupthink and the ease with which authority—real or imagined—led to the abuse of power. I didn’t know the experiment was fatally flawed until I read The Lifespan of a Lie by Ben Blum:

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 way I learned it, the guard’s behavior was a natural byproduct of the prisoner/guard relationship. However:

Once the simulation got underway, [The “warden,” undergrad student David] Jaffe explicitly corrected guards who weren’t acting tough enough, fostering exactly the pathological behavior that Zimbardo would later claim had arisen organically.

“The guards have to know that every guard is going to be what we call a tough guard,” Jaffe told one such guard. “[H]opefully what will come out of this study is some very serious recommendations for reform… so that we can get on the media and into the press with it, and say ‘Now look at what this is really about.’ … [T]ry and react as you picture the pigs reacting.”

Though most guards gave lackluster performances, some even going out of their way to do small favors for the prisoners, one in particular rose to the challenge: Dave Eshelman, whom experimenters nicknamed “John Wayne” for his Southern accent and inventive cruelty. But Eshelman, who had studied acting throughout high school and college, has always admitted that his accent was just as fake as Korpi’s breakdown. His overarching goal, as he told me in an interview, was simply to help the experiment succeed.

I’m not a sociologist, and I don’t know that a double-blind experiment is the right approach here. (Though it’s fun to imagine a “prison” split in half by bars, and the people on each side are unsure whether they’re prisoners or guards.) But over and over in Blum’s examination of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the researchers seem to have pretty blatantly interfered with the process.

And this isn’t just modern science second-guessing the research methods of yesteryear:

Despite the Stanford prison experiment’s canonical status in intro psych classes around the country today, methodological criticism of it was swift and widespread in the years after it was conducted. Deviating from scientific protocol, Zimbardo and his students had published their first article about the experiment not in an academic journal of psychology but in The New York Times Magazine, sidestepping the usual peer review.

Famed psychologist Erich Fromm, unaware that guards had been explicitly instructed to be “tough,” nonetheless opined that in light of the obvious pressures to abuse, what was most surprising about the experiment was how few guards did. “The authors believe it proves that the situation alone can within a few days transform normal people into abject, submissive individuals or into ruthless sadists,” Fromm wrote. “It seems to me that the experiment proves, if anything, rather the contrary.”

For those of you keeping score at home, the silver lining here appears to be “the situation didn’t turn guards into monsters; some of the guards were monsters this whole time,” which is silver-ish at best. I’ll take it.