Thursday, June 21, 2018

Add the Stanford Prison Experiment to the list of zombies

I have been following the story of recent successful debunking of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the study that made Phil Zimbardo famous. This interview, by the author of the book exposing the unsavory truth of the methods and the coverup afterwards is well worth a read. I will undoubtedly have the book in my hands at some point in the next month or so.

Going forward, when I teach a social psych course, to the extent that I cover the Stanford Prison Experiment at all, it is as simply a cautionary tale and nothing more. The experiment (or perhaps more properly the simulation) is more useful for teaching students how not to conduct and report scientific research. In that sense, I still think Zimbardo's work has some merit. We can train students to critically examine what happened over the course that the experiment was run, how the findings were presented, and to understand when and where Zimbardo's practices departed from what we would consider appropriate practices. Zimbardo's narrative as currently taught is essentially worthless. The Haslam and Reicher (2001) replication attempt may be of more interest.

In the meantime, this bit from the interview did jump out at me:

I think the implications of Haslam’s and Reicher’s research do a better job of accounting for some of the things that the Stanford Prison Experiment used to be offered to explain. The basic theory is that we are more prone to follow orders when we identify with the leader who seems to share our values and frames those orders in the language of our shared values.

This almost reads like a textbook definition of how obedience to authority, and how various forms of authoritarianism may work. As for the original experiment, I am so over it, as far as any value added to our understanding of human behavior. Otherwise, we have what amounts to the trappings of a reality show before there were reality shows. Research participants coached, a "good participant" effect to make the findings conform to pre-existing beliefs held by the principal investigator, and a false narrative that perhaps gives the public some sense of comfort that they lack agency when faced with apparently powerful social situations (yes - the power of the situation is important, but we probably play more of a role in how we react to each given situation than many may want to acknowledge).

As much as I hate adding to the list of classic research that I now teach as utter b.s. to my students, I'll keep doing so as needed. The good news is that the solid research holds up, thankfully. Our science itself, to borrow from Zimbardo, is not a bad barrel generally. There are some bad apples who have found the rotten spots that may exist in that barrel, and it is now up to each of us - regardless of our career status, regardless of our own shortcomings, etc. - to fix, in order to prevent bad apples from doing needless damage.

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