A few weeks ago I found this article on The New Yorker about Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and whether or not we have actually learned something from it. For those of you who don’t know, Zimbardo was a psychologist from Stanford University, CA and in 1971 he ran an experiment in which 24, mentally and physically healthy, males participated. The study aimed to find out if ordinary people would obey authority figures who told them to carry out aggressive acts. They were randomly split into ‘guards’ or ‘prisoners’, the prisoners were ‘arrested’ at their homes, they were given uniforms to make them look identical and were set up in the prison (aka the basement of the psychology department). The study was originally supposed to run for two weeks but was cut short at just six days after Zimbardo’s wife saw that the increasing aggression shown by the guards and the deterioration in mental health shown by the prisoners was not normal for an experiment.
This study has been one of my favorites ever since I studied it in college for A-level psychology (I’m not quite sure what that says about me!), and while we haven’t looked at this study in as much detail at university we have touched upon it. However, outside of my studies I don’t think I’ve seen it mentioned in the media, especially not in such a mainstream publication as the New Yorker. What I found interesting about this article was that it gave a balanced argument; with this study it’s very easy to write it off as a mistake made by a slightly unstable psychologist (to put it politely) but they didn’t. Instead they chose to seriously consider what we have learnt from the study whilst still acknowledging that there were many issues.
As they point out in the article the study looks straightforward on the surface; it supports Milgrams work on obedience to authority (people are willing to give dangerously high shocks to people if told to by a researcher), it can support real life events such as Abu Ghraib and America’s police brutality problem, and it seems to suggest that just a nudge can lead to anybody becoming a tyrant or a loss of identity can lead to anybody submitting to aggressors. What I particularly like though is how they go on to talk about its ambiguity and the things that psychologists must look for in studies to check how reliable they are. As we found out from a piece of coursework we wrote about how psychology is portrayed in the media, many publications, that aren’t specifically psychology based, do not include these things. The main problem with this study is that it is not clear whether anybody can become a tyrant or whether brutal circumstances shape their behavior. All the circumstances that are supported by this study are centered around aggressive acts. Also, many argue that the goal of this study was brutality as many people believe that Zimbardo manipulated the situation so the guards would get increasingly more aggressive. This suggests that the guards were not completely autonomous and so it wasn’t just their innate aggression coming out. This leads us back to circumstances causing tyranny.
Personally, I think it’s refreshing to see an article by a mainstream publication give such a balanced, unbiased write up on this study that so many people are eager to portray in a negative light. As is briefly pointed out in the article (blink and you’ll miss it) the myth of the Stanford Prison Study came about quickly where the number of guards who acted aggressively was exaggerated (two guards left the study early because of the negative effect acting in this way had on their mental health). And Zimbardo is often made out to be a terrible guy. I don’t believe he manipulated the study as much as is believed; I think the participants acted in ways they thought he wanted them to behave and this has, over the years, been misconstrued as heavy manipulation. I do think this study, despite it’s many issues, can teach us something about obedience to authority, even if that’s only within brutal settings like prisons. Even though many call for its findings to be disregarded due to the fact it broke many ethical guidelines I don’t believe it should be written off because it happened- a fact that cannot be changed- and it saw results. There are issues that were not mentioned in the article, namely the problem of generalizing from a small sample of male students to the rest of the population, but despite its problems it will always remain one of my favorite studies.
On that note we’ve just received our dissertation supervisors. I got Dr Emma Palmer (if by any chance you’re reading this, hello. I know I’ve not emailed you before but I will do soon. Promise.), who works mainly in forensic. This means that hopefully I’ll get to read more about Zimbardo’s study and many more within the same area. Now I know who I’ve got I’m quite excited to begin planning my question (I know, I know I’m a little late) and start reading up on the previous research.
I just want to know, has anyone read anything about the prison study before? If so what’s your take on it? Should we disregard the findings completely or does it actually tell us something useful?