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The Stanford Prison Experiment part 2: an alternative explanation (involving rotten apples)

LevineRotten Apples

(Image from Alan Levine at

This is the second of three posts on the Stanford Prison Experiment: the myth of what happened (last post), an alternative explanation for what happened (this post), and how that relates to the abuses at Abu Ghraib (next post).
The oversimplified version of the SPE is that the guards all became abusive, irrespective of their values and personalities, because they fell into the role required of them in the prison situation. Zimbardo’s full account of the study in The Lucifer Effect (2007) shows it was much more complicated than that, and he discusses thoughtfully and at length the various processes involved. As usual, this shows the value of going back to original accounts or papers, rather than relying on the text-book versions. I’ve discussed in the previous post how Zimbardo’s account shows considerable ‘personality-related’ variation in behaviour amongst both prisoners and guards, and questioned the extent to which situation/role governed everyone’s behaviour (though Zimbardo points out quite convincingly how he himself was overcome by the expectations of the ‘prison governor’ role).

The kind of thing that happened in the SPE does happen in other total institutions* (schools, children’s homes, care homes: see examples in the previous post), so the ‘SPE effect’ is pretty robust – but not all these total institutions have potentially dangerous inmates and a punitive (or at least corrective) ethos like a prison, so it can’t be simply the ‘prison guard role’ which is causing the effect.
My explanation is rather simple: individuals with a propensity for bullying and the ‘rotten apple’ effect, coming together in a total institution environment with lax controls on worker behaviour.

Zimbardo’s account distinguishes clearly between the ‘tough guards’ and the ‘good guards’, and even discusses a power struggle between them, which the tough guards win. One individual stands out: a guard named by Zimbardo in the book as Hellman (not his real name), who the other guards nicknamed ‘John Wayne’. In the available videos of the SPE which you may have seen he is a tall guard with straight fair hair who usually appears as taking a lead role in taunting the prisoners, and The Lucifer Effect emphasises his dominance and enthusiasm for mistreating the prisoners (which Hellman presents as his own ‘experiment’ to see how far he could go before someone stopped him: Zimbardo, 2007, p194).
Zimbardo commented on him, years later: “He was creative in his evil. He would think up very ingenious ways to degrade, to demean the prisoners.” BBC2 (2002)
Just after the end of the experiment, one of the prisoners talking to Hellman about how he might have behaved himself as a guard says: “I don’t think, I don’t believe, I would have been as inventive as you. I don’t think l would have applied as much imagination to what I was doing. Do you understand? […] I think I would have been a guard, I don’t think it would have been such a masterpiece!.” Zimbardo 2007, p193
I also remember Zimbardo reporting a conversation between one of the other guards and Hellman: “I know we have to do this stuff, Dave, but you don’t have to be so damn good at it.” I’m ashamed to say I can’t find the source for this now: if you know it, please let me know.

So, a personality difference, with one person seemingly more inclined to be abusive than others. But several other guards followed his lead, and no other guard, even ones that both Zimbardo and the prisoners regarded as ‘good guys’, effectively stopped the abuse. This is where the rotten apple effect comes in.

Rotten apples

Whenever some example of institutional abuse or corruption emerges, some senior spokesperson will blithely say ‘of course, there are always a few rotten apples, but….’ to reassure the public that there’s no fundamental problem. Such people are using a metaphor they don’t understand (don’t you hate people like that?), are actually confirming (if they understood what they were saying) that there is a real systemic problem, and worst of all DON’T KNOW ABOUT STORING FRUIT. The point about a rotten apple is that it quickly makes all the other apples in the barrel rotten. If it’s not removed at the first sign of decay, the whole lot can be lost. And that’s what rotten apples do: they’re not isolated instances – they’re centres of systemic corruption, once they’re allowed to get away with their rottenness. That seems to be what happened in the SPE: a ‘creatively evil’ person, running their own ‘experiments’, and lax management (Zimbardo), who allowed that kind of thing to take hold. Zimbardo is well aware of that in retrospect, and in The Lucifer Effect he staunchly owns up to his responsibility. Zimbardo does understand the metaphor, but he turns it around by suggesting that the situation was a ‘rotten barrel’ which infected the apples, not the other way around. There is some truth in that, and it may be a characteristic of total institutions (especially those with lax management) to provide ideal conditions for the infection to spread unopposed, but the influence of someone like guard Hellman is an important starting point. There seems to have been a similar influence at Abu Ghraib, which I’ll describe in the next post.

* The term ‘total institution’ comes from Erving Goffman’s 1961 book Asylums: well worth reading as background to all this stuff. (Everything Goffman wrote is well worth reading.)

A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together live an enclosed, formally administered round of life. Goffman, 1961, 1991: p11 in 1991 Penguin edition

An ‘appreciable period of time’ doesn’t have to be continuous, I think, so day schools can fit here, though boarding schools do fit better.

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

BBC2 (2002) The Stanford Prison Experiment

Goffman, Erving (1991, 1961) Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates London: Penguin Books

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

There are very extensive and informative websites about the SPE at and The Lucifer Effect at (but that’s not a substitute for reading the book).


(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 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 (,

…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

…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

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.

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
Also see 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 and The Lucifer Effect at

One of the foundation myths of modern psychology: “Brain Scans Show”

I’ve written about this before ( and, but reading through Dorothy Bishop’s excellent BishopBlog (, I came across a post of hers which made the points more clearly than I can:

Bishop also links to from Neuroskeptic, who makes similar points. Neuroskeptic’s argument is not as carefully organised as Bishop’s (and ends up by dismissing the James-Lange theory of emotions as obviously rubbish, which isn’t really justified), but is pleasantly forceful.

Neuroskeptic also discusses the Bennet & al (2009) ‘brain scan of emotion-judging activity in a dead fish’ study (  which Christina mentioned in her lecture. The original poster by Bennet & al (it didn’t make it into a peer-reviewed journal, as far as I know) is at – .

Why do we believe these stories, and believe that brain scans are the royal road to an understanding of the unconscious (or at least a way of answering psychological questions)? I’ll try to explain in my next lecture.

There’s more to scientific judgement than statistical significance

Interesting piece in The Guardian by Philip Ball in the Saturday Critical Scientist slot (replacing Ben Goldacre, and still worth reading):

He’s discussing the value of statistical analysis of the results in the Higgs Boson and ‘faster-than-light neutrinos’ studies.

In any experiment, all sorts of complications can influence results. So if you see something interesting, you need to make sure it’s not just a random fluctuation. That depends on how widely spread out your results are: the bigger the fluctuations, the more you’re apt to be misled by them. The spread is measured by a quantity called sigma. The bigger your “interesting” signal is relative to sigma, the more “statistically significant” it is: the more likely it is worth heeding.

In psychology, we use p to express the likelihood of a result occurring by chance, rather than sigma, the number of standard deviations from the mean of a chance distribution, but the basic principle is the same.

…these statistics don’t put numbers on the probability of a particular hypothesis being right or wrong, because experiments don’t care a hoot about your hypothesis. They just show the universe doing its thing.
And to interpret what the universe just did requires that we take into account what we know already: as evidence changes, so do the degrees of belief we may hold in a theory. This is commonly called Bayesian reasoning, after the 18th-century mathematician Thomas Bayes.

Ball’s argument is that he’s pretty well prepared to accept Higgs Boson results with low statistical significance, but even high levels of unlikeliness and statistical significance won’t be very convincing for the ‘faster than light’ results. The one result is in line with what we know about the universe: the other isn’t. As he says:

You could put it crudely this way: the real question about the faster-than-light neutrinos experiment is not “what is the chance it disproves relativity?” but “what is the chance that it disproves relativity given that your GPS system (which relies on relativity) works?”

What’s that got to do with psychology and Schools of Thought? Well, it fits with the fact that many well-known effects in social psychology are demonstrated by a small number of classic experiments with rather low levels of statistical significance, and could fit in the category of comfortable myths – but they fit with other stuff we know, and probably with our non-scientific expectations as well. So it’s not that unreasonable to accept that fairly low-grade evidence. On the other hand, as I said in the lecture about ‘unacceptable ideas’, there are bodies of research with some pretty impressive reported significance levels which I’m not going to believe in, whatever the stats: telekinesis and precognition, for instance. I presented my beliefs there as being in some way unscientific, but Ball (and Bayes) show how there’s scientific sense as well as prejudice in my judgement.

Relying too much on statistical significance is complicated because very unlikely things do happen by chance all the time. There’s line in a Paul Simon song about that. After all, 14+ million to one is pretty low odds, but a 14m: 1 chance comes off most weeks, when someone matches the lottery numbers and wins the jackpot. If people buy 20m+ tickets each week, that’s not surprising. Just knowing that people do win doesn’t make it any more likely that you will, but the fact that it seems to be vanishingly unlikely doesn’t make it any less real for those who do win.

So I’m with Ball when he says:

Which is why I’m only being scientific when I say screw the sigmas: I’d place a tenner (but not a ton) on the Higgs, while offering to join Jim Al-Khalili in eating my shorts if neutrinos defy relativity.

Unacceptable ideas?

From the science correspondent of The Guardian: Sally Morgan challenged to prove her psychic powers on Halloween
Sceptics have invited Sally Morgan to demonstrate her ability to communicate with the dead in a specially designed test

I was talking in Tuesday’s lecture about how psychic powers were (for me) an Unacceptable Idea in psychology – and a story about scientists testing psychic powers crops up within a week! Is this spooky? No. It’s a coincidence, but our, very sensible, tendency to be on the watch for patterns and connections leads us into seeing connections in chance occurrences – just like seeing shapes in clouds (“very like a whale”*).
But it is interesting.  I was too general in talking about psychic powers in the lecture. Here are some different categories:

Communicating with the dead: that’s the skill that’s being tested here. That’s an unacceptable idea to me, because it challenges too much about my ideas about life and consciousness. When Garry talks to you about the mind/brain problem ask him what relevance evidence about being able to talk to the dead would have.
Reading other people’s minds: OK, I’d go along with this, if I could see a scientifically acceptable mechanism for it – but see later.
Moving things with the power of your mind: as I said in the lecture, this violates too much of what I understand about physics and causation to be acceptable to me. It would also mean that no physically-based experiment would be reliable -someone could be reaching in with heir mind and moving things around. Having said that, for quite a long time it’s been possible to monitor brain activity and use that (via non-psychic mechanisms, like switches and levers) to change or move things in the world. Back when I was an undergraduate, W. Grey Walter was able to get people to learn how to turn a light on and off by thinking about it – or to be more precise, he was able to pick up a specific EEG pattern that someone could learn to produce, and use that as a signal for a mechanism which operated the light. There are really exciting developments in that area now, which could enable people with disabilities to operate a wider range of aids, or even regain control of paralysed limbs. That would look like magic/psychic powers, but “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

This suggests another reason for some ideas being unacceptable – accepting them would mean rearranging too much of your current understanding of the world

The ‘challenge’ being set to Sally Morgan seems pretty straightforward:

In the challenge, Morgan will be shown photographs of 10 deceased women and asked to match each to an entry on a list of their first names, by connecting with their spirits. Singh said the test was expected to last 20 minutes. To pass, Morgan will be required to match seven or more names to the right photographs.

The test was designed by “Professor Chris French, head of the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmith’s, University of London”. The two problems are assessing the level of accuracy required to be convincing (French wants seven out of ten or better) which is basic stats/probability, and ruling out trickery, which can be very difficult. Scientists aren’t very good at dealing with cheats, because we expect the world to be fairly regular and lawful – and consistent. I used to do a classroom demo of mindreading with a colleague (who was the real magician: I was just the attractive assistant), in which we invited the class to hypothesise how we did it and set up simple experiments to test their hypotheses. We could fool them all the time, because we had three, different, alternative methods. They often guessed accurately that we were using method A and devised a way of preventing that. We just switched to method B so their method A hypothesis seemed to fail – so they ruled that out, and went on to test their hypothesis about method B. We just switched back to method A, and fooled them.
French says, in the online version of the Guardian story:

With the right controls in place, we can perform an experiment where anyone who is deluded or who wants to cheat would find it very hard to be successful, but someone with genuine psychic ability, as Sally claims to have every night in her sold-out shows, should find the whole thing a breeze.

Good luck, Chris.

By the way, one of the ‘important questions in psychology’ from session 2 was ‘what is Derren Brown?’ My answer in class was: ‘he’s an entertainer’, which is a bit unfair to Brown. He knows a lot of psychology, and is very skilled and inventive in applying that knowledge (along with a lot of other skills) in his act. One of his demonstrations (reading people’s characters) is a straight re-run of a classic psychology experiment (Forer 1949). Works great.
Not surprisingly, Brown was asked by The Guardian to comment on the Sally Morgan test. Here’s what he said in the online article:

It’s important people don’t think that a test is a way of debunking or disproving. It’s a great way of anyone making amazing claims to show that they hold up and are not just a result of trickery or self-deception. The test should be both scientifically rigorous and yet fair to the psychic: it would show, if the psychic is successful, that what he or she does is real.

Such tests are important because it’s too easy for a person to fool others (or themselves) into thinking he or she has special abilities. If someone is going to put you in touch with your dead child you’d want to know if they were real, deluded or a scam artist.

The print version left out the first paragraph, which actually changes the meaning for me – Brown seems a bit less dismissive of the possibility of Morgan actually being able to do this in the fuller version.

A Guardian request to Morgan for comment on the challenge was passed to her lawyers, who did not respond.

Forer BR (1949). The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 44, 118-123.

* Harmless time-waster: find the source of the quotations

Professor Mark Griffiths talks sense, Baroness Greenfield doesn’t*†

*so, what else is new?
† Or, at least, she never produces any evidence for what she’s saying, and it does seem nonsensical

A couple of years ago, I was teaching a third year option on Psychology & Media, and we monitored psych stories as they appeared in the press & on TV – and online – and tried to work out where they came from and why so many seem so wrong. Well, many come from university press releases, and are usually basically OK, though they may suffer from over-simplification or over-enthusiastic headlines, like some I’ve already discussed here, but there was also a category of spurious-seeming psychology stories which run and run.

The ‘computer games are ruining our kids’ brains’ is a good example, especially in the version promoted by Baroness Susan Greenfield, who used to be an eminent neurologist, but is now widely publicised for speeches she makes at minor, usually non-scientific, functions. Essentially the same story has been coming up every six months or so for several years. Here’s this week’s version

Computer games leave children with ‘dementia’ warns top neurologist!!!!!

(OK, I put the scary red bits and silly exclamation marks in myself)
Although I have great disrespect for the Daily Mail generally, what we found when tracking psychology stories in it was that they were generally quite informative and reasonably accurate, though they often had very inappropriate headlines. The problem here isn’t the Mail, it’s the talk that’s being reported (and the headline, maybe, if you read the whole article).

Eminent neurologist Baroness Susan Greenfield said yesterday that spending time online gaming and browsing internet sites such as Facebook could pose problems for millions of youngsters.

She told attendees at a Dorset conference that an unhealthy addiction to technology could disable connections in the brain, literally ‘blowing the mind.’

The ‘Dorset Conference’ was actually ‘the opening of a £2.5million science centre at Sherborne Girls’ School’ (not a state school).
The article goes on to say:

However, she did not reveal any research that had made a connection between screen technologies and brain degeneration.

To repeat and emphasise: she did not reveal any research. And she never does: I have a clip from an interview from a serious TV programme where she says there’s no evidence.
The Mail goes on to say:

Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist and Directory of Nottingham Trent University’s International Gaming Research Unit, said he knew of no scientific evidence that such a link existed.

Go, Mark! To repeat and emphasise: he knew of no scientific evidence that such a link existed. That sounds like a responsible social scientist to me. Is it responsible to go on and on and on (and on) peddling a scare story for which no scientific evidence exists?
The Daily Telegraph fell for it too: and The Sun:

Good grief.

Further reading: Ben Goldacre’s  take on all this

If you’re a Schools of Thought student, you could try out my ‘why do we believe this stuff?’ list on this.

More about myth – and relating it back to psychology a bit

This is to do with psychology, and with the Schools of Thought course, I promise – eventually. Just trust me and keep reading.

Zoe Williams, writing in The Guardian* about Theresa May’s ‘strategic cat fib’, goes on to talk about other powerful non-truths:

“However, Cameron used exactly that tactic, in his not-very-famous “health and safety” speech of December 2009: “I think we’d all concede that something has gone seriously wrong with the spirit of health and safety in the past decade. When children are made to wear goggles by their headteacher to play conkers … When village fetes are cancelled because residents can’t face jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops … ”
Now these examples were untrue, of course, but the interesting bit is that they were the very examples that the Health and Safety Executive’s website ( had given in illustration of the stupid, untrue things that people say about them. Cameron wasn’t just perpetuating myths as part of a melange of things he didn’t like, some of which may or may not have been true. He was actively, one has to assume knowingly, disseminating untruths because his version of the underlying truth – that an overweening state is against common sense and ruins all our fun – was best served by vivid illustration, and fantasy is nothing if not vivid.”

The crucial phrase there is the one I’ve highlighted: knowingly, disseminating untruths because his version of the underlying truth….was best served by vivid illustration. That’s what myths are about, and for. The ‘saved by the cat’ myth (still a myth, even though I heard on the radio this morning that Conservative Central Office have claimed to find a case where a real criminal really was saved from deportation because he had a cat, really – honest [later update: that story vanished quickly – maybe because that one wasn’t true, either] ) is a powerful myth because it expresses what Theresa May, and many other people, think is an underlying truth:  ‘article 8 of the Human Rights Act has driven a coach and horses through our immigration law’ (quote from Williams again). The ‘Health & Safety’ myths ( also express some people’s genuine concern that fun stuff is being disallowed because it’s (maybe, a bit) dangerous, or that workers are being given a legal basis for avoiding dangerous working conditions, and that will damage profits.
[Just for the record, I don’t agree with either of those concerns, but I can still see the real issue behind the myth]

OK, what’s that got to do with psychology? As you’ll see in the lecture, Little Albert was not straightforwardly fear-conditioned, with classic generalisation effects; Milgram didn’t show that everyone obeys inhumane commands mindlessly, and his demonstration doesn’t have much to do with massacres like My Lai or the death squads in Poland in WWII, still less with Rwanda; Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment didn’t show that personality is subsumed by role, and can’t be used simplistically (ie in a foolishly over-simplified way) to explain what happened at Abu Ghraib.

But…why did your teachers (and some of the textbooks) tell you all those lies, then? Because they express underlying truths (and, probably, because they suppress other, less welcome truths – as the ‘human rights’ and ‘health and safety’ myths also do).
People can learn fears by association; generalisation is a feature of classical conditioning (and probably most kinds of learning), and has been shown in lots of studies – just not (at least not simply) in the Little Albert case.
People will treat others inhumanely because the system or authority requires it, and will say ‘it’s not my fault; I’m just applying the rules’. The Tuskegee Experiment (, or, indeed, decisions made about asylum seekers (the people formerly known as refugees) both fit the Milgram scheme quite well, I think.
(Some) People will misbehave and bully and abuse those in their power if the situation allows it, and if there’s tacit approval from those in power for doing that. Dominant, charismatic, abusive individuals can lead others to follow their example (this was a feature of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and of Abu Ghraib, though it isn’t part of the dominant myth).

So – the standard, misleading, accounts of Little Albert, Milgram, and the Stanford Prison Experiment do contain basic truths – but we should recognise that they’re just the stories we tell (and they’re good stories: any decent myth has to be a good story) to the uninitiated to get them to understand the deeper truths of psychology. Now, as undergraduates, you’re moving from the role of A-level uninitiated worshippers to certified (by the BPS) members of the theocracy, and you are being allowed to see the truths behind these myths. Some of you will go on to teach psychology, and maybe perpetuate these myths – for the good of your students, of course.

…and what are the uncomfortable truths which these myths hide, as I mentioned above? With Little Albert, I think it’s recognition that there could be different kinds of causes for neurotic fears, maybe even psychodynamic ones (you’ll hear, later in the course, about conflict between these kinds of explanations. That was a big deal when the ‘behaviourist or Freudian?’ debate was significant. Nowadays, we just know it’s a matter of flawed thinking, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will sort people out OK). I think there’s also a deeper hidden truth: mad or neurotic behaviour causes enormous amounts of damage and misery, and we don’t really know how understand it, or how to deal with it. This is like the problem of death, and the religious responses to that.
And Milgram and the SPE? The hidden truth behind applying these to real-life abuse and atrocity is racism (as, pretty obviously, in the Tuskegee Experiment). Not a feature in the original studies, but very often a feature (and maybe THE feature) of the cases we try to explain by referring back to these studies/myths.

*you’ll have guessed by now that I hardly read anything else

Of course, the myths aren’t all psychological…..

You may have been reading about the Home Secretary’s embarrassing blunder over the ‘criminal can’t be deported because he had a cat’ myth.
Here’s a breakdown, which points out that it’s a myth that’s been around for some time, and it derives from misleading headlines in newspaper articles: – and also shows that even though there’s lots of disconfirming evidence and information it doesn’t go away – just like lots of myths in psychology.
You could try to do the ‘why do we believe these things?’ analysis for yourself on this one – though you will need to assume some racism or at least xenophobia in the people who keep it going.

Footnote: why are these people so worried about human rights that they have to use lies to argue against them?

Computers are rewiring our kids’ brains: how does that myth work?

I’ve just posted about some online material which has been distorted to fit the ‘computers are rewiring our kids’ brains’ myth, so I thought it might be useful to talk about how that fits with the ‘myth-making principles’ I’ll be talking about in my lecture later this term. (Also see the previous post on the myth of water.)

In that lecture, I’ll say we keep on repeating myths because:

  • They’re partly true
  • People thought they were true once
  • They express things we think are true, really
  • They express things we think ought to be true
  • We like confirmatory stuff
  • They help us to make sense of psychology
  • They help us to help you to make sense of psychology

Partly true: It is possible to trace changes in brain chemistry or activity as a result of experience – though we’re not very sure how that works or what it means, and the brain may be just as ‘rewired’ by eating a can of baked beans as by playing Grand Theft Auto – and learning and singing the alto part to Mozart’s Requiem is likely to rewire you even more.
People thought they were true once: well, since this is new technology, there can’t be a historical explanation – though it’s worth pointing out that novels, movies, horror comics and death metal have all been proposed as things which will ruin our children (the ‘rewiring’ bit is more recent: it’s not a concept they used much in the anti-novel backlash)
Express things we think are true, really: seems likely that working and communicating in different ways might change how we think and react
Express things we think ought to be true: The world is going to pot; kids are getting dumber (and ruder); there’s no regard for Proper Culture any more. This must be true, because generation after generation have felt this way for thousands of years (you will too, just wait) – and since it’s obviously not the fault of the universities, schools, BBC4, etc, it’s got to be the fault of either computer games or the Daily Mail.
We like confirmatory stuff: How much press coverage would a story like: What rats see doesn’t change their brains much, it turns out or Computer Games probably a waste of time, but completely harmless get? Actually the rat story in the previous post didn’t tell us anything about the reduced attention span* of today’s kids, but it could be spun so it did give confirmation to the ‘rewiring’ myth – and so it gets picked up.
Help us make sense of psychology (or the world generally): Well, given all the problems noted above, we need some explanation – doesn’t this sound like a good one? All those bankers, too: they’re like that because they played Space Invaders too much. Once we have a population of bankers who’ve had their brains rewired by Doom, we’ll be in real trouble.

*’reuced attention span’ could be re-interpretated as ‘quick-witted’, ‘capable of doing several things at once’ or ‘doesn’t pay attention to anything I say’.

Another myth in psychology?

One of the psychology myths which is developing in the media is the ‘videogames are rewiring our kids’ brains’ story. Susan Greenfield has been pushing this for years, without any evidence that I’ve found convincing, but about once a year she makes a speech which gets in the papers as though it’s a new story. But it’s not just her. Here’s a press release which, I think , misrepresents what was found, and then a blog post which takes that up and over-applies it.
Here’s an extract from the original press release:
“Viewing two-dimensional images of the environment, as they occur in computer games, leads to sustained changes in the strength of nerve cell connections in the brain. In Cerebral Cortex, Prof. Dr. Denise Manahan-Vaughan and Anne Kemp of the RUB Department for Neurophysiology report about these findings. When the researchers presented rats with new spatial environments on a computer screen, they observed long-lasting changes in the communication between nerve cells in a brain structure which is important for long-term memory (hippocampus). Thus, the researchers showed for the first time that active exploration of the environment is not necessary to obtain this effect.”
Quite properly, the release gives a link to the original article:
If you look at that, you’ll find that the ‘new spatial environments’ were different patterns of four symbols on cards, which were ‘new’ because they weren’t the same arrangement which had been presented previously, not anything like a virtual tour of a maze, the changes in the rats’ brains are rather limited and specific (in memory- and spatial-learning areas, admittedly), the measurement of those changes is rather indirect – and overall the impression I got from the original paper is very different from the impression I got from the press release. Admittedly the original authors do say:
 “Clarification of the latter point could additionally comprise an important step in developing an experimental strategy to examine the consequences of virtual/digital media-derived sensory information (television, computer gaming) for information encoding in the “real” world. ”
– but I couldn’t see any real justification in the article for linking it to the consequences of computer gaming. Of course, suggesting there might be a link would be useful in getting funding or encouraging publication of results.
My interpretation of the article is that when rats see a new pattern there are some changes in their brain which are similar to changes associated with other kinds of novel experience.
OK – so far, so not very satisfactory. Interesting research which probably will contribute in the long term to understanding of learning and memory – one more brick in an enormous edifice – is over-hyped and it would be easy to get the wrong idea. But then the idea goes further, and changes as it goes. Here’s an extract from a blog, which was picked up and tweeted by a colleague interested in elearning:

Learning with Video is as Effective as the Classroom – And that’s a Problem

“In the experiment, one group of rats was actively exploring new spatial environments and another group was watching the new environment on a screen. Both formed new lasting connections in the hippocampus which is important for long term memory.”
No; that would be a pretty effective design, and is the kind of thing you might expect: but that’s absolutely NOT what happened.
“On the one hand, the research can be the basis for new strategies in the classroom to fight against “the apathy in children towards the traditional teaching methods”. On the other hand, it also explains the observations of teachers that each new generation of school children seems to have increasingly shorter attention spans.” 
“According to Manahan-Vaughan children are using an increasing amount of digital media throughout the day. If the findings in the experiment are correct, the information that children learn by playing games or watching videos is simply competing with the information they received and learned during class.”
Yes, Manahan-Vaughan is quoted as saying that kind of thing in the press release, but it’s not in the original article, and I can’t see any evidence for it (or any relevance to those issues, really).

Seems a nice example of how a story gets out of hand, and completely unrelated to the original evidence – and it’s worryingly likely that people will start saying “there’s evidence that rats’ brains are so rewired by computer games that they can complete whole levels of the games without even touching the keyboard”*

*Yes, I know that’s an exaggeration which isn’t supported by the evidence I’ve supplied