Stanford Prison Experiment

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Jared Alesi's picture
Stanford Prison Experiment

Most of you are probably familiar with the Stanford prison experiment. And you're probably familiar with the results of the experiment, the egregious human rights violations, the inhumanity of the whole thing, yada yada yada.

If you're not, allow me to briefly sum up: behavioral psychologists from Stanford University in California put out an ad in the classifieds to find a bunch of volunteers for their study in which they wanted to try and replicate the conditions of a prison in order to study the effects of perceived power and the extent to which people would obey authority. 24 men were selected from the volunteers and they were assigned as either an inmate or a guard by a coin toss.

Cut to the actual experiment, it was canceled after 6 days because the men in guard positions almost immediately enacted authoritarian codes of conduct on the prisoners, and almost none of the 24 men left the experiment without some form of psychological trauma. The researchers wrapped it up and made their conclusions: power corrupts.

I'm here to tell you that all of that is bullshit.

The Stanford prison experiment is widely hailed as a defining study of the human psyche that opened our eyes to the way humans think and behave. It's taught about in high school and in university sociology classes. There's only one small problem: It was wholly and purely unscientific in its methodology and its execution. Fact is that this study is so shoddy that the fact that anyone ever called it conclusive is beyond ridiculous.

The study was of 24 men. That's hardly a decent sample size. Any statistician would balk at a sample size of 24. It also had only one type of person: middle class white men from Palo Alto, California in 1971. That's hardly going to cover anything beyond the men in the study, is it? I highly doubt those results would be the same if the study was done with women, minorities, people from different cultures, or even just varied economic classes. The study was also never replicated. In the scientific world, unrepeatable studies are held as inconclusive.

Then there's the matter of how the study's volunteers were obtained. The ad for volunteers stated that they would be participating in a study of prison life. Prisons and police jobs tend to attract a certain kind of person to apply for them. Like any job, certain minds are drawn to it. People who are highly empathetic will probably want to be nurses or teachers or EMTs and the like. People who are highly inquisitive will probably want to be scientists or innovators, etc. But what about prison guards? What kind of person wants to be a prison guard, and would be interested in playing a role as one? Someone who craves control. Someone who likes the idea of having power over other people. I hate to break it to you, but for every cop who says they join the force to protect the people, there's probably a dozen who join because they like tackling people and putting them in cuffs before throwing them in a car, or because wearing a gun makes them feel important. That's more than likely the exact type of people who responded to this ad.

Moral of the story is that you can't always base your ideas on only one aspect of the data. A true scientist will consider all the angles, not just the first one that looks obvious. Economics, social position, perceived roles, gender identity, cultural practices, religious background, politics, and physiology are all going to have some effect on behavior. Everything is not so black and white as it seems when it's presented to you on a page written by someone without all the answers.

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Old man shouts at clouds's picture
@ Jay

@ Jay

There were many "questionable" studies and unsubstantiated conclusions published from the 60's to the 90's in the field of psychology.

I learnt very quickly after my first year to question the statistical basis if many of the accepted, and university taught, standards. I was fortunate in having a professor who considered that the weighty tomes handed down by those at the "top of their field" were often 'just making shit up' (I quote) and publishing books that were destined to cause much suffering and erroneous treatments for years to come.

Since the mid 90's things seem to have changed (at least as reported to me by my young friends who are/were at uni). There seems to be at least a rigour about the way samples are tested and results published. Statistical analyses are subject to much greater scrutiny and there seems to be much greater ability for even a student to question the hierarchy.

My stepson is looking forward to his first year as a psyche student, and has been warned of the mind numbing content of that 1st year.....statistics, followed by a dessert of statistics.

If he gets through that I would very interested to read his textbooks for the following years!

Cognostic's picture
@Jay: Not sure why this is

@Jay: Not sure why this is important to you or what it has to do with atheism. You are correct in that the study is cited in most psychology programs. Anyone with an ounce of integrity knows the limitations of such a study so you really aren't saying much.

YOU SAID: "The Stanford prison experiment is widely hailed as a defining study of the human psyche that opened our eyes to the way humans think and behave."

NO - it was a failed experiment that was slated to last 14 days and only managed to make it to 6 before the researchers had to stop the experiment to prevent harm.

YOU SAID: "I highly doubt those results would be the same if the study was done with women, minorities, people from different cultures, or even just varied economic classes. The study was also never replicated."

And why do you think they were never repeated? "The Stanford Prison Experiment is frequently cited as an example of unethical research. The experiment could not be replicated by researchers today because it fails to meet the standards established by numerous ethical codes, including the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association. Zimbardo acknowledges the ethical problems with the study, suggesting that "although we ended the study a week earlier than planned, we did not end it soon enough."

DO YOU ACTUALLY THINK YOU ARE SAYING ANYTHING NEW? "IT IS FREQUENTLY CITED AS AN EXAMPLE OF UNETHICAL RESEARCH." No one is holding a torch while standing on a soap box and citing this as a great or innovative study. It was UNETHICAL and now you want to do it with women and minorities. REALLY!

YOU SAID: "Moral of the story is that you can't always base your ideas on only one aspect of the data. " WRONG The moral of the story is DO NOT CONDUCT UNETHICAL RESEARCH.

YOU SAID: "A true scientist will consider all the angles, not just the first one that looks obvious. Economics, social position, perceived roles, gender identity, cultural practices, religious background, politics, and physiology are all going to have some effect on behavior. "

WHAT THE CRITICS - THOSE PEOPLE WITH ACTUAL DEGREES IN PSYCHOLOGY, SAY "Other critics suggest that the study lacks generalizability due to a variety of factors. The unrepresentative sample of participants (mostly white and middle-class males) makes it difficult to apply the results to a wider population."

SO WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU ON ABOUT? YOU HAVE SAID ABSOLUTELY NOTHING THAT IS NOT GENERAL KNOWLEDGE AND ABSOLUTELY NOTHING THAT IS NOT TAUGHT IN EVERY PSYCH 101 CLASS.

ARE YOU FUCKING NUTS? Every study begins someplace. Once the study failed so miserably and all the unethical variables were exposed, why in the fuck would they do another experiment to consider economics, social position, gender identity, cultural practices, religious backgrounds, politics or anything else. Are you suggesting that we just keep doing the experiment over and over and over until we find a population that can last the full 14 days. WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?

THANK YOU FOR TRYING TO LOOK INTELLIGENT WHILE STATING THE OBVIOUS.

https://www.verywellmind.com/the-stanford-prison-experiment-2794995 (SPE - cited as an example of unethical research. )

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment (the experiment has been criticized for unscientific methodology and possible fraud.)

https://www.simplypsychology.org/zimbardo.html (This means the study's findings cannot be reasonably generalized to real life, such as prison settings. I.e, the study has low ecological validity.)

Sheldon's picture
@Jay

@Jay

All well argued points, but can I ask why the experiment can't be replicated? It doesn't seem that impossible to me.

There's actually a film based on this as well, starring Forest Whitaker and Adrian Brody. It's way over the top tbh, and if anything exaggerates the findings even farther.

I don't think it's a given that power corrupts, this is untrue, but it can obviously. As you say there are other variables, and personality is a major factor. I think even the best of us might be altered by absolute power, especially over time, and a general but anecdotal "rule" I've come to believe is broadly true, is that the more a person desires power, the more weary one should be of their motives.

It's a cliche after the line was used by Spider Man, but those who view it as a responsibility or burden to help others are probably best suited, or at least the less likely to be corrupted by it. Though again this is a very broad sweep that misses a lot of potential variables.

When apologists trot out the much used cliche that atheism is responsible for the worst atrocities in history, citing totalitarian regimes. I'm left pondering if they've noticed that all totalitarian regimes end with the same abuses of power and negation of human rights, regardless of whether those in power believed in deities or not.

Simple answer, no one should ever hold unchallenged power, ever. Not even fucking Gandhi.

Cognostic's picture
@Sheldon: Controls were

@Sheldon: Controls were insufficient and people got hurt. It's a prime example of how not to do an experiment. No one was safe. Any site you look at describing the experiment will tell you the same. That's why I cited 3 of them above.

Finally - it's a bullshit post with nothing at all to do with anything on this site.

Sheldon's picture
@Cognostic

@Cognostic

Yeah but I wasted an hour and a half on that awful film, and had to justify it with a mention on here.

;-)

Cognostic's picture
This recent one is worse.

This recent one is worse.
Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes experiment.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nqv9k3jbtYU

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