Author Topic: The Stanford Prison Experiment: maybe not good?  (Read 53 times)

Cainad (dec.)

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The Stanford Prison Experiment: maybe not good?
« on: June 16, 2018, 03:48:27 pm »
The Lifespan of a Lie

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of those mainstays of armchair psychology. I know it has heavily influenced the way I think about human behavior and situationism ever since I heard about it.


History has an annoying trend of being more nuanced and complicated than the version you heard when you were in high school.

The article isn't that long, but here's some out-of-context paragraphs for you to read and misinterpret:

While Zimbardo likes to begin the story of the Stanford prison experiment on Sunday, August 15th, 1971, when guards began harassing newly arrived prisoners at the “Stanford County Jail” — making it sound as if they became abusive of their own accord — a more honest telling begins a day earlier, with the orientation meeting for the guards. There, addressing the group less as experimental subjects than as collaborators, Zimbardo put a thumb on the scales, clearly indicating to the guards that their role was to help induce the desired prisoner mindset of powerlessness and fear.

In surveys conducted in 2014 and 2015, Richard Griggs and Jared Bartels each found that nearly every introductory psychology textbook on the market included Zimbardo’s narrative of the experiment, most uncritically. Curious about why the field’s appointed gatekeepers, presumably well-informed about the experiment’s dubious history, would choose to include it nonetheless, I reached out. Three told me they had originally omitted the Stanford prison experiment from their first editions because of concerns about its scientific legitimacy. But even psychology professors are not immune to the forces of social influence: two added it back in under pressure from reviewers and teachers, a third because it was so much in the news after Abu Ghraib. Other authors I spoke with expressed far more critical perspectives on the experiment than appeared in their textbooks, offering an array of reasons why it nonetheless had pedagogical value.

The racial dynamics of the Stanford prison experiment, which have never been adequately explored, should probably have given reformers pause. Carlo Prescott, who had just suffered sixteen years of imprisonment as an African American, played a pivotal role in shaping the architecture of the experiment. Frustrated in part by the lack of black experimental subjects, he intervened repeatedly in the action, seeking to bring, as he put it to me, “an air of authenticity to boys who were getting $15 a day to pretend to be prisoners — all Caucasian, as you recall. [Ed. note: one prisoner was Asian American.] Some of the genuine things that shock you as a result of having your liberty taken and your ass being controlled by people who hate you before you even get there.” Yet Zimbardo’s account of the “situation” that engendered abuse left race out of the equation. He often used the word “normal” to describe the participants in his study despite the fact that they were hardly a normal representation of the American inmate population at that time. Analyzing American prisoner abuse as a product of race-blind “situational forces” erased its deep roots in racial oppression.