Critique of Stanfod Prison Experiment

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Serious Questions about the Stanford Prison Experiment
July 15, 2008
The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) by Phil Zimbardo has been for me an example of the astonishing things that we humans are capable of. I guess as an example of human gullibility, I had not been skeptical about the experiment, which lacks quite a few scientific markers (aside from its ethical problems). During a talk by Barbara Oakley, she was asked to comment about the SPE because it showed the influence the situation and roles could have on human behavior. She responded that there are quite a few questions about this experiment and pointed us to a summary of the critique at Wikipedia. I finally had a chance to review this and am retiring another holy cow now: the experiment is, well, crap not nearly as thoroughly tested against reality as we are led to believe… (Thanks to a discussion in thecomments, I now understand that Zimbardo does deserve credit for pointing to the importance of situational influences. I still think, though, that he, at best, could use SPE for the development of hypotheses, not as support for a theory, as he seems to be doing. ). What’s missing from the experiment that made Zimbardo famous: It cannot be replicated (how convenient); it lacked a control group and a large sample size (only 24 people participated). These are major flaws for a study that is supposedly decisive about human behavior. This is probably why it has never been published in a leading academic journal, unlike a modified follow-up experiment. In his critique of the SPE, Erich Fromm points out that the main conclusion the researchers draw is actually not supported by their data (despite their attempts to mask that by using vague terminology like “some” and “a few” rather than the actual numbers): The authors believe it proves that the situation alone can within a few days transform normal people into abject, submissive individuals or into ruthless sadists. It seems to me that the experiment proves, if anything, rather the contrary. If in spite of the whole spirit of this mock prison which, according to the concept of the experiment was meant to be degrading and humiliating (obviously the guards must have caught on to this immediately), two thirds, of the guards did not commit sadistic acts for personal “kicks,” the experiment seems rather to prove that one can not transform people so easily into sadists by providing them with the proper situation. The difference between behavior and character matters very much in this context. It is one thing to behave according to sadistic rules and another thing to want to be and to enjoy being cruel to people. The failure to make this distinction deprives this experiment of much of its value, as it also marred Milgram’s experiment. [Reference added] Fromm further questions whether the prisoners had trouble distinguishing reality from experiment because of the situation they were in. He points out that the prisoners were arrested by real Palo Alto police who did not answer any questions regarding the reality of the charges. Being arrested for fictitious charges without being told that this is the beginning of the experiment would create confusion for anyone. How were they supposed to know that they are part of an experiment when the real police is involved? As Fromm puts it Since it is most unusual for police authorities to lend themselves to such an experimental game, it was very difficult for the prisoners to appreciate the difference between reality and role-playing. The report shows that they did not even know whether their arrest had anything to do with the experiment, and the officers refused to answer their questions about this connection. Would not any average person be confused and enter the experiment with a sense of puzzlement, of having been tricked, and of helplessness? I suppose, it could be argued that this was necessary for the experiment to work properly but it certainly makes the conclusion about the...
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