Can we escape from the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Stanford Prison ExperimentIn 1971 there was an attempt to explore the psychological effects of perceived power that is known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. It is perhaps one of the most well-know psychological experiments of all time and has entered popular culture as such, and yet what is perhaps not so well appreciated is that it was all a sham and wholly fraudulent.

What happened?

Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo built a mock jail and then stocked it with students who were randomly assigned the role of either guard or prisoner. It was abandoned after just six days because, as popular culture would have us believe, the students absorbed their assigned roles rather too deeply; guards started applying some deeply disturbing psychological torture and the prisoners just passively accepted this.

Most introductory social psychology textbooks describe it, hence it is well-known.

The conclusion is that it suggests that the situation, rather than individual personalities, inspired the participants’ behavior.

One famous incident concerns the then 22 year old Douglas Korpi who had been assigned the role of prisoner. He apparently had a breakdown and started screaming and kicking at the door  …

“I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside! Don’t you know? I want to get out! This is all fucked up inside! I can’t stand another night! I just can’t take it anymore!”

The entire thing was fraudulent

It was not scientific – Zimbardo had no scientific controls, he was not a neutral observer (he played the role of the prison’s superintendent). The conclusions drawn are wholly subjective and also anecdotal.

It is not reproducible – there have been a couple of attempts to do the same, and all have failed to achieve the same results.

The guards were coached, they did not spontaneously do what they did.

Carlo Prescott, who was Zimbardo’s “prison consultant” writes within an article in 2005, titled “The Lie of the Stanford Prison Experiment” as follows …

[…] ideas such as bags being placed over the heads of prisoners, inmates being bound together with chains and buckets being used in place of toilets in their cells were all experiences of mine at the old “Spanish Jail” section of San Quentin and which I dutifully shared with the Stanford Prison Experiment braintrust months before the experiment started. To allege that all these carefully tested, psychologically solid, upper-middle-class Caucasian “guards” dreamed this up on their own is absurd. How can Zimbardo and, by proxy, Maverick Entertainment express horror at the behavior of the “guards” when they were merely doing what Zimbardo and others, myself included, encouraged them to do at the outset or frankly established as ground rules?

Is this really true, were the guards coached to do what they did and it was not situational at all?

Yes, and there is evidence of that, we don’t need to take anybody’s word on that.

There are recordings of David Jaffe, who acted as the “prison warden” coaching the guards to act as they did …

Critically, Zimbardo stated in a 1971 document describing the experiment that “the guards were given no specific instruction or training on how to be guards.”

“Instead,” he said, “they were free, within limits, to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison and to command the respect of the prisoner.”

This week, the story of the experiment changed considerably. In a thoroughly reported exposé on Medium, journalist Ben Blum finds compelling evidence that the guards in this experiment were not left to act on their own desires. Audio recording and interviews with those involved reveal the guards were coached into being mean or considered the experiment to be an “improv exercise.” Here is one of those recordings, via the Stanford archive. It’s pretty damning. You can hear David Jaffe, one of Zimbardo’s students who acted as the prison “warden,” chastising a guard for not being severe enough.

JAFFE: Generally, you’ve been kind of in the background. Part of that is my fault because I’ve gone along with when you wanted to sit outside while they were doing count. Or that sort of thing. But we really want to get you active and involved. Because the guards have to know that every guard is going to be what we call a “tough guard.” And so far …

GUARD: I’m not too tough.

JAFFE: Yeah. Well, you have to try to get it in you.

GUARD: Well, I don’t know about that.

JAFFE: See, the thing is, what I mean by tough is you have to be firm, and you have to be in the action, and that sort of thing. It’s really important for the workings of the experiment because whether or not we can make this thing seem like a prison, which is the aim of the thing depends largely on the guards’ behavior.

This demolishes the entire idea that this was a meaningful experiment that demonstrates that people naturally fall into their assigned roles. The guards were specifically instructed on how to behave.

What about that student prisoner who lost his mind?

A Jun 7th article in Medium exposes that even this supposed breakdown was a complete sham. He apparently faked it to get out of the experiment to get back to studying because they refused to let him go. Here is an interview with that student telling us what actually happened …

“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.”

Now a forensic psychologist himself, Korpi told me his dramatic performance in the SPE was indeed inspired by fear, but not of abusive guards. Instead, he was worried about failing to get into grad school.

“The reason I took the job was that I thought I’d have every day to sit around by myself and study for my GREs,” Korpi explained of the Graduate Record Exams often used to determine admissions, adding that he was scheduled to take the test just after the study concluded. Shortly after the experiment began, he asked for his study books. The prison staff refused. The next day Korpi asked again. No dice. At that point he decided there was, as he put it to me, “no point to this job.” First, Korpi tried faking a stomach-ache. When that didn’t work, he tried faking a breakdown. Far from feeling traumatized, he added, he had actually enjoyed himself for much of his short tenure in the jail, other than a tussle with the guards over his bed.

“[The first day] was really fun,” Korpi recalled. “The rebellion was fun. There were no repercussions. We knew [the guards] couldn’t hurt us, they couldn’t hit us. They were white college kids just like us, so it was a very safe situation. It was just a job. If you listen to the tape, you can hear it in my voice: I have a great job. I get to yell and scream and act all hysterical. I get to act like a prisoner. I was being a good employee. It was a great time.”

For Korpi, the most frightening thing about the experiment was being told that, regardless of his desire to quit, he truly did not have the power to leave.

“I was entirely shocked,” he said. “I mean, it was one thing to pick me up in a cop car and put me in a smock. But they’re really escalating the game by saying that I can’t leave. They’re stepping to a new level. I was just like, ‘Oh my God.’ That was my feeling.”

Another prisoner, Richard Yacco, recalled being stunned on the experiment’s second day after asking a staff-member how to quit and learning that he couldn’t. A third prisoner, Clay Ramsay, was so dismayed on discovering that he was trapped that he started a hunger strike. “I regarded it as a real prison because [in order to get out], you had to do something that made them worry about their liability,” Ramsay told me.

The fraudulent experiment is taught as factual science

It really really is …

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.

… In surveys conducted in 2014 and 2015, Richard Griggs and Jared Bartels each found that nearly every introductory psychology textbook on the market included Zimbardo’s narrative of the experiment, most uncritically.

It has had consequences …

What is shocking is that the fraudulent conclusion from this scam has led to policy makers using it as evidence to backup the choices they make …

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.

… and there really are better models that do actually work …

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.

Bottom Line

The Stanford Prison Experiment needs to be recognised for what it actually is – fraudulent – and also obliterated from the textbooks, or at least correctly identified for what it really it.

Further Reading

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