Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment

Genocide Museum 17 Jan 06I’ve posted before here about the publicity surrounding Philip Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect. Two articles in the latest issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin take a look at Zimbardo’s famous/notorious Stanford Prison Experiment (follow the link for more details of the SPE).

In discussions of the SPE, the participants have usually been referred to as ordinary students. But, wondered Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland, what sort of students volunteer for such a study? Are they the same in personality dimensions as those who would not volunter, or who would volunteer for a different sort of study? The question is important, because it is possible that people who volunteer to take part in a ‘prison study’ may show particular characteristics which, when they are put in particular situations, dispose them to engage in abusive, abhorrent or otherwise cruel behaviours towards other people. People who don’t volunteer might not behave in the same way if put in the same situation. If so, then it has implications for the situationist argument that, in the right (or, rather, wrong) situation, anyone could become a torturer / sadistic guard / terrorist ….

Carnahan and McFarland couldn’t test this theory using the SPE data, and instead re-ran the volunteering part of the study to see what sort of people would volunteer for a two week study ‘of prison life’, compared to those volunteering for a study described in an identical manner but with the ‘prison life’ bit taken out. This extract from their abstract tells what happened:

Volunteers for the prison study scored significantly higher on measures of the abuse-related dispositions of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and lower on empathy and altruism, two qualities inversely related to aggressive abuse. Although implications for the SPE remain a matter of conjecture, an interpretation in terms of person-situation interactionism rather than a strict situationist account is indicated by these findings. Implications for interpreting the abusiveness of American military guards at Abu Ghraib Prison also are discussed.

Incidentally, I think the study on hooliganism that I reported a few days ago says something very similar, albeit in a different context.

Also in this issue of PSPB, Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher (who ran their own version of the SPE back in 2001) offer a commentary on Carnahan and McFarland’s paper, discuss the research on situationist approaches to understanding evil and conclude (p.621) that:

Arendt, Milgram, and Zimbardo played a critical part in taking us beyond reductionist explanations of tyranny as a simple product of pathological individuals. But now, their reductionist explanations of tyranny as a simple product of pathological situations—the banality-of-evil hypothesis—seem equally untenable. Instead, the case is emerging for an interactionist understanding that sees the social psychology of individual tyrants and collective tyranny as interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

[…] it is true that evil can become normal and indeed normative in groups and hence can end up appearing banal. However, the development of these norms and of their appeal is a long and intricate process. This process—the normalization of evil—is far from banal. Our theories of it should no longer be either.

References :

See also:

Photo credit: me, Genocide Museum , Cambodia, taken Jan 2006.

2 thoughts on “Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment”

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  2. Update: Thomas Carnahan got in touch to say he is happy for his public email address to be listed along with Sam McFarland’s webpage link. It is tcarnahan2 — @ — (remove the dashes to make it work).

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