November 11, 2009

Stanford Prison Experiment Redux

abu.JPG
it appears I'd lay there too if I were you

For those living in Antarctica, in 1974 Phil Zimbardo conducts a study, the point of which was to show

the evil that good people can be readily induced into doing to other good people within the context of socially approved roles, rules, and norms, a legitimizing ideology, and institutional support.

In other words, a person's goodness or evilness can be dramatically influenced by situation.

The first thing you should notice: my phrasing.  "...the point of which was to show X."  Not to study X, not to determine if X was true.

Subjects were randomly given a guard or prisoner role in a fake jail.  It was supposed to last 2 weeks. He aborted it in 6 days because "too many normal young men were behaving  pathologically as powerless prisoners or as sadistic, all powerful guards."

Second thing to notice:  his phrasing.  "...normal... behaving pathologically... powerless... sadistic..." 

About his conclusions, they may imply that men are born innately good, but can be changed; or born innately bad, or born as blank slates-- but how they're born doesn't seem to matter.  They can be changed, and, apparently, without too much effort.  No Milgram authority figure; simply the right circumstances, $15 and a uniform.

You may want to ponder what this implies about the trivial characteristics we long to be genetic and fixed-- extroversion, anxiety, the tendency towards spending sprees-- when one's entire moral compass can be spun full around in the course of a Hampshire Halloween.

II.

The essential conclusion to be drawn from this study-- the one everyone draws all the time--  is that this can happen to anyone.  "Normal" people were incited towards evil.  75 people applied; Zimbardo chose the 24 for the study who were "judged to be the most stable (physically and mentally), most mature and least involved in antisocial behavior."  Also, they were Stanford students, right? Not from ASU. (zing.)  Didn't matter.  It's probably not necessary to point out how important this study is in psychology and the conventional wisdom.  You can't have discussion about a group atrocity without this study being invoked.

There may be another explanation, and as soon as I start to write it you'll guess the rest.  Zimbardo recruited subjects through a newspaper ad that said

male college students needed for a psychological study of prison life.  $15/day for 1-2 weeks

It's a legitimate question: what kind of a nut signs up for that?

There's an answer.  In a follow up experiment in 2007 designed specifically to answer that question, two ads were placed in newspapers, one recruiting "male college students needed for a psychological study.  $70/day for 1-2 weeks" and the other, slightly different ad recruiting for "a psychological study of prison life.  $70/day for 1-2 weeks."

The subjects weer screened with personality inventories, and, surprise, "prison study" recruits scored significantly higher on narcissism, social dominance, aggression, Machiavellianism and authoritarianism (but especially the first three.) 

When you do a study, you get what you pay for.

III.


Zimbardo thought he was showing how a "normal" person might be made evil.  He could have asked what might make a "normal" person become a passive, beaten victim-- it was the same experiment.  Presumably the same forces are at work, but it is easier to believe that the distance between normal and victim is shorter than normal to evil.

But if you accept, or at least seriously consider, that there was a selection bias in the recruitment of Zimbardo's study, then there's a new finding to ponder, and I don't really know what it means.

No surprise that a group of aggressive/narcissistic people who decide they want to be part of a prison experiment need little prompting to turn into viscous guards-- but, apparently,  these same aggressive/narcissistic people can just as easily be made into submissive prisoners.  You might think they'd rebel more, fight back more, but apparently not. 

Maybe the the real conclusion isn't how easily people with those characteristics can be pushed into an aggressor or victim status, but their tendency to identify with a group, whatever it may be.


---

http://twitter.com/thelastpsych








Comments

Alone: Your DOI link is bro... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 1:34 PM | Posted by Matt P: | Reply

Alone: Your DOI link is broken. Could you please update it, or provide the citation for the article? I'd like to get a look at it.

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Psychoanalysis--and clinica... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 3:16 PM | Posted by metamirror: | Reply

Psychoanalysis--and clinical experience--teach that sadism and masochism are two sides of the same coin. . .

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You comment: Bu... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 3:41 PM | Posted by Dave Johnson : | Reply

You comment:

But if you accept, or at least seriously consider, that there was a selection bias in the recruitment of Zimbardo's study, then there's a new finding to ponder, and I don't really know what it means.

Carnahan and McFarland, in their study, explain it this way:

Viewed through an interactionist lens, all of us as individuals interact with situations in much more complex ways than passively adopting and enacting ascribed roles. We may do that only in very strong situations, and even very strong situations are more compelling for some individuals than for others. Furthermore, we spend our lives selecting to be in some situations while avoiding others. Because others similar to ourselves are more likely to select our same situations, together we mutually reinforce the very qualities and behaviors that led us to select the situations initially. This analysis does not discount the power of a prison simulation, or of a real prison, to induce abusive behavior. The SPE certainly showed that it can do so.

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Here's the citation:... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 3:45 PM | Posted, in reply to Matt P's comment, by Dave Johnson : | Reply

Here's the citation:
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 5, 603-614 (2007) DOI: 10.1177/0146167206292689

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I'm totally the kind of per... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 3:52 PM | Posted by Honorius: | Reply

I'm totally the kind of person that would sign up for that. I'm the kind of person that would sign up for that and try to bring friends with me.

Because it's an experience, because I can do some role play (be someone else, he?), live a little adventure. It makes sense if you're bored. Then there might be the fact that it's, what, two week? Just enough for it to not become another routine.

I might be a nutjob but there is something in that proposition that is appealing to me.

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Fantastic article. And I go... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 3:57 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Fantastic article. And I go to ASU and am smart enough to understand it! I'll have to thank my stats prof.

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After reading your comments... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 4:00 PM | Posted, in reply to Honorius's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

After reading your comments I can see why.

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What group does Don Draper ... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 4:06 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

What group does Don Draper identify with? He seems such a loner.

Or maybe he's a conflicted loner? He identifies with as many groups as many masks he puts on?

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Narcissism, social dominanc... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 4:37 PM | Posted by theskepticalshrink: | Reply

Narcissism, social dominance and aggression? Funny, these are characteristics shared by people who self-select into the medical profession....

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Why (as in, you can expend ... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 4:50 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Honorius: | Reply

Why (as in, you can expend on what I've already said)?

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The self-selection angle is... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 5:11 PM | Posted by Randy: | Reply

The self-selection angle is a legitimate criticism... It just isn't a very powerful criticism. Yeah, it might lessen the ability to generalize the SPE to the whole population, but that was NEVER a practical application of this study, at least in my mind. People aren't randomly assigned to careers in law enforcement (or other supervisory, authoritative roles); criticism of the study based on self-selection bias alone is pretty weak, IMHO.

Maybe Zimbardo made a few statements about the importance of the study that were over-broad, but that's hardly unique to the SPE, or even social psychology as a discipline. Heck, in the competition for grant dollars I'd be surprised if there are many researchers in any science that don't feel the pressure to overstate the ramifications of their work. And Zimbardo is hardly a lowly, humble researcher... If I had a nickel for every time that man has pseudo-abashedly chuckled in public about the ethics of using human subjects the way he did I'd retire. It takes even bigger stones to sell a thrown-together documentary using video of the abuses at the same time, and for a pretty penny too.

It's still an important study even if Zimbardo is a bit of a sleazy character.

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How does a "male college st... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 8:24 PM | Posted by Jack Coupal: | Reply

How does a "male college student" devote 7-14 continuous days to a research project?

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Funny, these are charact... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 8:28 PM | Posted, in reply to theskepticalshrink's comment, by Jane: | Reply

Funny, these are characteristics shared by people who self-select into the medical profession....

Oh, bless you for saying that, skeptical.

Very interesting post. That study has always freaked me out.

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Easy! He just approaches i... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 9:28 PM | Posted, in reply to Jack Coupal's comment, by xon: | Reply

Easy! He just approaches it as if it were a bag of weed. . . or an Eastern-European co-ed art major. . .

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The artificial intelligence... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 9:34 PM | Posted by Boris: | Reply

The artificial intelligence of Google adds is sometimes obscenely funny: I get a german add for methods to achieve a good six-pack under that sad photo.

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"Maybe the the real conc... (Below threshold)

November 11, 2009 11:12 PM | Posted by B: | Reply

"Maybe the the real conclusion isn't how easily people with those characteristics can be pushed into an aggressor or victim status, but their tendency to identify with a group, whatever it may be."

Doesn't that come down to the same thing? It is dependent on group dynamics and relative power. The prisioners in this experiment were stripped of individual traits (hair covered with stocking, addressed by number etc) and basically at the order of the guards who were both free to express their individual traits (hair, glasses, called by name) and had absolute control. The prisioners formed a group based on mutal circumstances (and a very tight group as was seen when they abandoned a new prisioner who was introduced and refused to follow orders which would have negative consequences for the prisioner group as a whole) as did the gurads based on their equal power. This experiment showed how strangers formed groups based on their perceptions of power and of the other group (majority vs minory or ingroup vs outgroup) and so while some people are biologically predisposed towards dominance, agression etc (poor prefrontal cortex development, seratonin levels etc) and therefore thrive in positions of power such as being a guard, others simply obey orders and comply with expected norms. As was seen in the milgram experiment, even though these were normal people doing atrocious and degrading things they were following a 'legitimate' authority as Zimbardo himself was acting as superintendent of the prision and the highest authority.

The BBC did a retest of this but had the experimenters hidden so they never interacted directly with the guards or the prisioners and in the end the guards and the prisioners joined forces against the experimenters. This re-shows the imporance of proximity and legitimacy of authority in obedience.


sorry for the essay but it's a hard thing to wrap up in a few sentences

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re"It's a legitimate questi... (Below threshold)

November 12, 2009 7:03 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

re"It's a legitimate question: what kind of a nut signs up for that?"

What kind of a nut signs up to be a psychiatrist?

TLP 2008/03/suicidal_patients_access_to_th.html
"Believe it or not, I am not completely without empathy for other people."
"So Society infers: psych patients can't think clearly. They cannot be responsible for themselves, even when they're doing fine, because they might suddenly not be fine-- so someone has to be there around the clock to catch them.

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Great post. Nice to read a ... (Below threshold)

November 12, 2009 8:40 AM | Posted by Dolores: | Reply

Great post. Nice to read a different perspective on such a well-known study.

I read Carnahan & McFarland's article. I find it very interesting to see that it was very difficult for them to find enough 'participants' for the prison study -- and they had to ran the ad AGAIN. Potentially comprising the comparability between the two groups, I would say. The prison group has n = 30 , the non-prison group has n = 61 -- even after running the ad for the prison study twice.

But they did not repeat the ACTUAL experiment. Sure, this might explain the 1974 SPE results, however, without repeating the experiment it does not mean that the prison group would repeat the results of the 1974 experiment and the control group wouldn't.

And Alone, I would expect you of all people to be suspicious of the obviously present time factor here: young male students in 1974 were born and raised in the 1950-1960s. It could be that the study participants in 1974, even with self-selection because of the 'prison' indication in the ad present, scored significantly lower on the same traits than the control group in the recent study, due to cultural changes, as you argue we are a generation of narcissists anyway. Now that is a truly scary thought.

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Only being familiar with th... (Below threshold)

November 12, 2009 8:58 AM | Posted by Mae: | Reply

Only being familiar with the original study and results, this was super interesting. People cite that all the frickin' time.

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What I can't stand with all... (Below threshold)

November 12, 2009 10:01 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

What I can't stand with all of these social psych experiments is that they generally use college students for their samples and then generalize to broader population (and get away with it).

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xon,I'd pass on th... (Below threshold)

November 12, 2009 10:25 AM | Posted, in reply to xon's comment, by Jack Coupal: | Reply

xon,

I'd pass on the weed. But, the Eastern European co-ed art major could definitely keep me away from boring classes for 2 weeks.

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The recruitment is a limit ... (Below threshold)

November 12, 2009 3:39 PM | Posted by medsvstherapy: | Reply

The recruitment is a limit of this study. However, in the way science is supposed to work, it fits in just fine to make the point that we have no idea the extent to which Lewin's behavior-prediction formula, behavior results from a mix of the person AND the environment, is true. The scary part for "us" is to see how subtly coercive the environment part is. If Zimbardo's findings could not be replicated, they would be a curiosity. However, Zimbardo and a slew of Jewish academics were intersted in trying to figure out how so many everyday people could assent to Hitler's horrible regime, including looking the other way, or participating in, the Holocaust. Zimbardo gave powerful evidence that it did not take a special breed of person, or special training. It basically takes the social context, and there you have it. Milgram's obedience research is exactly the same. Solomon Asch's research is exactly the same. Abu Ghraib is exactly the same. Allen Funt's Candid Camera was exactly the same. The tragedy of the many passive observers/minimizers/denyers of incestual sexual abuse is the same thing. Kitty Genovese's tragic lack of help was exactly the same. People make their decisions regarding how to act or not act based upon what others around them are doing. A mom knows her daughter is being sexually molested by her boyfriend, but does nothing. Why? We can say: she has no resources, she has no self-esteem, etc., but the rest of these examples indicate a strong reason might be that the victim and the perpetrator go along as if nothing happened, and the mom has no other person in the context to give a clue about any other way to behave, and so the abuse continues. Anyone can come up with a decent criticism of that example. Or criticise any of these examples. But the truth is that a great portion of our behavior is determined by us trying to figure out how to act by seeking info from the social context. My lawn is fine, and I use no fertilizer, etc. My wife sees the neighbors using fertilizers, etc., and she keeps believing that we need to be "winterizing," etc. Why? What is wrong with the lawn? Nothing - but everyone else is winterizing, and there are piles of "winterizer" in the stores right now. must...winterize....must...winterize...must..

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I disagree... to a point. ... (Below threshold)

November 13, 2009 9:02 AM | Posted, in reply to theskepticalshrink's comment, by JadedMDstudent: | Reply

I disagree... to a point. I'd say there are more personality disorders in the medical profession (take Obsessive compulsive personality disorder and all those surgeons running around the place). I think narcism predominates but only in about 60% of medical students most of who happen to be in their 20s. It is over kill to say the profession is loaded with those that have traits of social dominance and aggression. But, if you said it is loaded with those that go into the medical profession to fulfill some sort unmet emotional need that was lacking in their life, I'd agree.

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"You might think they'd ... (Below threshold)

November 27, 2009 12:51 AM | Posted by PachydermPuncher: | Reply

"You might think they'd rebel more, fight back more, but apparently not."
Uhh, why would I think that?

Any narcissist who suffers a severe blow to their status and, as an added insult, is denied an effective means of controlling their environment, is prone to have an utterly epic meltdown (which can include a virtual paralysis of personality.) Narcissists are not widely noted for their broad and flexible repertoire of "coping" skills.

Your reasoning seems to be: given that relatively insignificant insults to their status tends to cause an inordinately aggressive reaction, narcissists must go absolutely ballistic in extreme circumstances. In my experience that is not always true.

Here's a reasonable explanation why this might be so: in circumstances which are (to their eyes) insoluble, the same reasoning that compels a narcissist to hold their supposed inferiors in contempt can be turned around and applied to themselves. This is, undoubtedly, not a comfortable situation to be in. It's worth noting however, that this effect usually doesn't last very long. Narcissists do have some skills for coping with emotional upsets, they're just hopelessly pathological.

With regard to your surprise at the "prisoners" passivity though, here's an idea: it was only temporary. Had there been enough time for a pecking order to develop among the prisoners there would have been a significant increase in prisoners' aggression, the Zimbardo study just didn't last long enough to observe that outcome.

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But wait, wouldn't people w... (Below threshold)

November 27, 2009 3:05 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

But wait, wouldn't people who apply for a prison job have the same characteristics as the type of people who responded for this study?

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Although it may not necessa... (Below threshold)

December 8, 2009 3:03 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

Although it may not necessarily apply to the average person, it still applies perfectly to the Abu Ghraib incident (the photo of which begins this post). Therefore, Zimbardo's purpose (to discover how war atrocities could occur) is actually still fulfilled.

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working DOI link for the ar... (Below threshold)

March 21, 2010 6:29 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

working DOI link for the article here:

http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167206292689

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AnonymousI'm afrai... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 2:54 PM | Posted by ironchefoklahoma: | Reply

Anonymous

I'm afraid that Zimbardo's experiment fulfilled nothing of the sort. The fact that he's trotted out to gleefully recount his "experiment" every time there's a prison incident only shows the shallowness of the media.

The experiment only "perfectly applies" to Abu Grahib if there was a psychologist running the prison who openly egged on both the "guards" and the "prisoners". I can't see how anyone reading Zimbardo's own account of the experiment can come to any other conclusion. I *really* don't see how he kept his teaching position.

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ironchef - But the techniqu... (Below threshold)

May 18, 2010 6:43 PM | Posted, in reply to ironchefoklahoma's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

ironchef - But the techniques used at Abu Graib were behind at least some of the techniques used so they were "sanctioned" by a psychiatrist (he lent them the authority of psychiatry) and then there were others there in charge egging people on. That's exactly how it degenerated, or so it seems.

http://www.wsws.org/articles/2005/jan2005/tort-j13.shtml

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