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(Almost) everything you know about the Stanford Prison Experiment is wrong

This is a critical discussion of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a study reported by Haney, Banks and Zimbardo in 1973, which gets a write-up in most introductory psychology books, and the place it has come to occupy in the mythology of psychology. It isn’t a criticism of the study itself or Zimbardo’s work, though I have some criticisms of Zimbardo’s conclusions from the study, but of the simplistic ways it has been reported and interpreted and applied to account for events like the mistreatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003/4. Zimbardo has recently provided a detailed account of the study in The Lucifer Effect (2007) and in that book, and more recent lectures, he gives a more nuanced account of the psychology of bullying and oppression than the accounts I’m criticising here.
Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set up a fake prison, put volunteers into it as randomly assigned ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’, and the ‘guards’ abused and bullied the ‘prisoners’ to such an extent that the experiment was stopped after a few days. The myth of the study is that it showed that role and situation overcame individuality; both guards and prisoners fell into their roles, whatever their personal or social inclination may have been, and that the study gives a full explanation of prison abuse. There is a comforting follow-on from being told this myth: now we know how these things work, we can avoid the same kind of thing happening again. That comfortable belief was shaken by the revelation of the physical and sexual abuse suffered by prisoners in the military jail at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2003/4, which was taken by many as ‘the Stanford Prison Experiment in real life’.
A Critical Psychology approach suggests that things are more complicated than this standard version. In 2007, Zimbardo published a book which contained a detailed, almost hour-by-hour, account of the study, which helps in this analysis.
A useful critical psychology framework is to ask who? where? why? and when? about a piece of research.
Who and where? Zimbardo was a young academic with an imaginative approach, working at a prestigious university in the USA.
When? The research was undertaken while the USA was at war in Vietnam, and not long after the Korean war.
Why? In both of these conflicts, US soldiers became long-term prisoners of war, and there was concern about how resistant these soldiers might be to interrogation, indoctrination and ‘brainwashing’. This concern was the original point of the study. The research was funded by the US Navy, and the point was to study how prisoners might react to stressful conditions. The guards were not originally the focus of the research. They were just there as part of the machinery of making things difficult for the prisoners. In fact, to start with the researchers thought that the guards were treating the prisoners too well (see later).
The myth is that everyone fell into their roles, and played them altogether too well: the prisoners cowed and intimidated, the guards bullying and sadistic. However, it’s clear from the 2007 account that there were considerable individual differences between the guards and their inclination to abuse prisoners – and the prisoners themselves showed wide individual differences in their behaviour, as the following quotes show:

Arnett [a guard] doesn’t like the fact that Tom-2093 is ‘too good’ in his ‘rigid adherence to all orders and regulations’. (Indeed 2093 will later be disparagingly nicknamed ‘sarge’ by the other prisoners precisely because of his militaristic style of obediently following orders. He has brought some strong values into the situation that may come into conflict with those of the guards….) p47

Prisoner 8612 tries to talk the others into going on a sit-down strike to protest these ‘unacceptable’ prison conditions… p48

The ringleader of the revolt is Paul-5704, who got his buddies in Cell 1 […] to agree that it was time to react against the violation of the original contract they made with the authorities (me). They push their beds against the cell door, cover the door opening with blankets. pp60-61

One of those prisoners commented: ‘Although I am usually quiet, I don’t like to be pushed around like this. Having helped to organise and participate in our rebellion was important for me. I built my ego up from there. I felt it was the best thing in my entire experience. Sort of asserting myself after the barricade made me more known to myself.’ p63

Meanwhile, in cell 1, two prisoners are quietly executing the first stage of their new escape plan. Paul-5704 will use his long fingernails, strengthened from guitar-picking, to loosen the screws in the faceplate of the power outlet. Once that is accomplished, they plan to use the edge of the plate as a screwdriver to unscrew the cell door lock. One will pretend to be sick and, when the guard is taking him to the toilet, will open the main entrance door down the hall.  Signalled by a whistle, the other cellmate will burst out. They will knock the guard down and run away to freedom![…] but as bad luck would have it, Guard John Landry, making routine routine rounds, turns the door handle on Cell 1, and it falls to the ground with a resounding thud. Panic ensues [and the escape attempt is foiled]. pp63-64 

Not all the guards were keen to be oppressive, and some had to be nudged by the researchers into being tougher:

Guard John Marcus seems listless. He rarely gets involved in the main activities in the Yard. Instead, he volunteers to do off-site duties, like picking up food at the college cafeteria. His body posture gives the impression that he is not enacting the macho guard image: he slouches, shoulders down, head drooping. p65

He is later taken aside and urged to ‘play the role of the tough guard’.

The warden takes [guard Markus] out to the yard and chastises him…
“The guards have to know that every guard has to be what we call a ‘tough guard’…”
[Markus objects] “…we need you to act in a certain way. For the time being, we need you to play the role of a ‘tough guard’… your individual style has been a little too soft” Zimbardo 2007, p65

Certainly, an abusive situation did develop, but from the 2007 account, it seems to have been the product of one or two dominant, bullying individuals, rather than something that was ‘produced’ by the situation. The situation did allow this bullying, because of Zimbardo’s deliberately laissez-faire management, but perhaps didn’t require it. This conclusion is supported by the outcome of a ‘replication’ staged by Reicher and Haslam in 2006 (lots of details at http://www.bbcprisonstudy.org/). Although this wasn’t a true replication – there were many detail differences, although the starting setup was similar to Zimbardo’s – the outcome was very different, with co-operation between prisoners and guards, and prisoners sure of their rights taking back some dominance from the guards . Reicher and Haslam (2006) discuss how a different social milieu thirty years later, and different emerging social processes within the ‘prison’, could change the outcome so markedly.
Although there clearly were lessons to be learned about prison management from the original study, and Zimbardo has been an active expert witness on prison reform over the years, the idea that this knowledge can straightforwardly change things hasn’t been borne out either. In a 1998 paper, Haney & Zimbardo conclude that US prison policy showed “a consistent disregard of context situation in the criminal justice practices of the past 25 years” (p714). They conclude that this was because of a politically-driven shift of prison ideology from rehabilitation to punishment, and the failure of the politically motivated ‘war on drugs’; the significance and effectiveness of psychological research depends crucially on the social and political conditions of the time.
However, the Stanford study did seem to come true all over again in Abu Ghraib – perhaps as a result of lax management, and a dominant, bullying personality (Charles Graner), just as in the original study – but I think it’s more complicated than that. As always, it’s necessary to consider the surrounding social and political conditions. I’ll talk about that in my next post.
Certainly, the kind of thing that happened in the SPE does happen, with depressing regularity, but the ‘people fall into their (oppressive) roles’ explanation doesn’t really work. I don’t think bullying is part of the job description of prison guards, and it certainly doesn’t apply in other cases. For instance: a reported case of 16-year-old being tied up by teachers in UK, 2007….

Two teachers have been suspended after mobile phone footage showed a 16-year-old pupil being tied up with electrical tape and taunted in front of his classmates at a new academy in Kent.
At one point in the five-minute clip a voice, believed to be a teacher’s, says: ‘Give us a shout when you are ready to start grovelling.’ It ends with the pupil being released by another teacher. The boy was reportedly distressed. Polly Curtis, The Guardian Thursday December 20, 2007 (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/dec/20/schools.newschools),

…and it’s not the case that teachers are supposed to be sadistic bullies – and the same goes for care workers:

Winterbourne View care home “BBC One’s Panorama showed patients at a residential care home near Bristol, being slapped and restrained under chairs, having their hair pulled and being held down as medication was forced into their mouths. The victims, who had severe learning disabilities, were visibly upset and were shown screaming and shaking. One victim was showered while fully clothed and had mouthwash poured into her eyes.
Undercover recordings showed one senior care worker at Winterbourne View asking a patient whether they wanted him to get a “cheese grater and grate your face off?”
The abuse was so bad that one patient, who had tried to jump out of a second floor window, was then mocked by staff members.”
BBC News 26 October 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-20084254

…and only a rabid anti-cleric would suggest that bullying and oppression was the ‘role’ of a nun:

Children were forced to eat their own vomit and bathe in disinfectant at residential care homes run by nuns, the UK’s largest public inquiry into institutional child abuse was told on Monday.
During evidence on the behaviour of nuns from the Sisters of Nazareth order at two Catholic church-run children’s homes in Derry, the inquiry heard that children were beaten for bedwetting and had soiled sheets placed on their heads to humiliate them.
Nazareth House children’s home and St Joseph’s Home, Termonbacca, were both run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Derry. Forty-nine ex-residents of the two homes gave evidence about their treatment in written and oral testimony to the historic institutional abuse inquiry sitting at Banbridge courthouse.
A total of 16 church- and state-run orphanages, care homes and other institutions in Northern Ireland are under scrutiny in a public inquiry expected to last until June 2015.
Young people at Sisters of Nazareth properties in Derry were known by numbers rather than their names, and many were allegedly subjected to humiliation, threats and physical abuse, said Christine Smith QC, senior counsel for the inquiry.
Henry McDonald, The Guardian Monday 27 January 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jan/27/children-derry-care-homes-inquiry

I think there’s a different explanation, consistent with the happenings in the SPE, but quite different from the standard text-book myth, and a bit different from Zimbardo’s version. It’s briefly sketched above, but I’ll elaborate it, and talk about the Abu Ghraib case, in my next post.

References
Haney,  Banks & Zimbardo (1973) Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison – International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97 (note this isn’t a psychological journal), This is the standard ref for the Stanford Prison Experiment but you probably won’t be able to get hold of it. 

Haney, Craig & Zimbardo, Philip (1998) The Past and Future of American Prison Policy: Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment  American Psychologist, 53(7), 709-727. This doesn’t tell you anything very new about the SPE, but suggests that it didn’t have much effect on government policy.

Reicher, Stephen & Haslam, Alexander (2006) Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study British Journal of Social Psychology 45, 1–40
Available at  http://www.psychology.nottingham.ac.uk/staff/msh/mh_teaching_site_files/teaching_pdfs/C82SAD_lecture8/The%20Experiment%2001%20-%20Reicher%20%26%20Haslam%20(2006).pdf
Also see http://wwww.bbcprisonstudy.org for the BBC Prison Study

Zimbardo, Philip (2007, 2009) The Lucifer Effect London: Rider

There are very extensive and informative websites about the SPE at http://www.prisonexp.org/ and The Lucifer Effect at http://www.lucifereffect.com/

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One response to “(Almost) everything you know about the Stanford Prison Experiment is wrong

  1. Pingback: The Stanford Prison Experiment part 2: an alternative explanation (involving rotten apples) | millerpsych

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