10.05.2021

Circle of deception: why we cannot trust the findings of the Stanford prison experiment

Even if you are not particularly interested in psychological experiments, changing the world, you’ve surely heard something about the Stanford prison experiment. To thank for the fact that the story was so popular that its author, an American social psychologist Philip Zimbardo (Philip Zimbardo), should popular culture. Namely, the German film “the Experiment” in 2001 and its American remake 2010.

Today’s experiment at Stanford, along with the obedience experiments of Stanley Milgram, is not only one of the most famous, but also one of the most ethically controversial psychology. But this, however, is not about that. While the scientific community is singing the praises Zimbardo – who, by the way, in 2012, received the “Golden medal” of the American psychological Association (American Psychological Association) – writer Ben bloom listened to recordings made during the experiment, and understood that not everything in it happened so “suddenly” and “spontaneously” as it was described. An article about it published on the platform Medium.

We will remind, what was the experiment itself. Volunteers consisting of 24 people recruited team on an ad in the newspaper, were randomly assigned to the roles of “guards” and “prisoners.” The participants thought they were involved in the study of prison life, each day of which was to receive remuneration in the amount of $ 15.

The first day in a makeshift prison located in the basement of Stanford University, everything went fine. But on the second day of “prisoners” suddenly rebelled, barricaded himself in chambers and had ceased to obey the “guards”. Suppressing a riot, “guards” began to be unpredictably cruel to the “prisoners.” For example, they forced them to do push-UPS to exhaustion, publicly ridiculed or sent into solitary confinement to reflect on his behavior. For two members of a scientific statement turned out to be so psychologically complex that they had to withdraw from the experiment.

Despite the fact that initially the experiment was given two weeks, he was terminated after only six days. Zimbardo admitted that this decision, among other things, affected his future wife Cristina Oils that found the experiment too cruel.

The main conclusion made after the Stanford prison experiment, was that the situation can affect a person more than the quality of the person, and the person can become extremely violent if his behavior is an ideological, government or other authoritarian rationale. But the problem is that, according to a new publication, supported by audio recordings, much in the experiment, on which is written hundreds and thousands of scientific papers, was done at the Express or implied request of the moderators. In other words, the participants just did what they were asked to do.

For example, “the prisoner” Douglas Korpi (Korpi Douglas) during the experiment, suddenly fell to the floor and began to shout: “I’m burning inside”, and these pictures look very disturbing. On the other hand, the same participant admitted in an interview with bloom, he thought, if that is what is expected from him psychologists. “Any clinical psychologist would understand that I falsified emotions. If you listen to the recording, then this, believe me, will be easy. I’m not a good actor. I mean, I’ve done pretty well, but I was more hysterical than psychotic”, he said.

In the context of new information interestingly, psychologist Alex Haslam (Alex Haslam) tried to replicate the study by Zimbardo experiment, filmed by the BBC, but he gave not that shocking or unexpected, but no results. At the same time, the record of the experiment, which is freely available on the website of Stanford University shows that “guards” directly asked to act “as a cruel prison guards.”

“The fact that behavioral changes occurred during prison experiment cannot be considered natural, blind or inevitable,” says social neuroscientist Jay van Bavel (Jay Van Bavel).

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