‘Stanford Prison’ and our capacity for cruelty

Maybe we’re not so bad after all.

Interesting piece from the BPS Research Digest about the Stanford Prison Experiment. That was the 1971 experiment in which a group of students was divided into jailers and inmates. The ‘jailers’ eventually became so brutal in their treatment of their ‘inmate’ peers that the experiment had to be abandoned. The lead investigator, Philip Zimbardo, used this result to argue that even good people will turn bad in certain situations.

I’d always accepted the results of this experiment at face value and it’s been used to explain, amongst other things, the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. What I hadn’t realised was the range of criticisms leveled at the experiment’s methodology and conclusions. These culminated in the 2002 BBC Prison Study, in which a similar experiment led to a far more nuanced and interesting outcome.

The piece in the Research Digest reports on a recent study by Richard Giggs in which he analysed 13 leading US psychology textbooks, all of them recently revised. Of the 11 textbooks that mentioned the Stanford Prison Experiment, only 6 were critical and then mainly of the ethics of the experiment, rather than of its conclusions. Only one textbook provided a reference to a critique of the experiment.

This is a good illustration of how the results of a flawed experiment can become an accepted and unquestioned truth, despite the existence of evidence to the contrary. This particular ‘truth’ continues to be taught to thousands of psychology students each year.

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