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The Stanford Prisoner Experiment - 40 Years On 175

Posted by samzenpus
from the it's-good-to-be-a-guard dept.
cheros writes "It's now 40 years ago that the Stanford prisoner experiment went ugly so quickly it had to be aborted. Stanford has an interesting piece called The Menace Within that looks back on this momentous psychological experiment. From the article: 'What happened in the basement of the psych building 40 years ago shocked the world. How do the guards, prisoners and researchers in the Stanford Prison Experiment feel about it now?'"
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The Stanford Prisoner Experiment - 40 Years On

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    And it all started to make sense.

    • by dgatwood (11270)

      I read it as "Security Prisoner Experiment" and the TSA airport experience suddenly made sense. *sigh*

  • by syousef (465911) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:03PM (#36755242) Journal

    I thought it was expanded to most modern IT departments ;-)

    • by Demena (966987) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @07:44PM (#36756226)
      No not IT departments. But they did form a whole core fro it. The TSA. That is precisely why such petty bureaucrats are a menace to society.
  • The Lucifer Effect (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bigsexyjoe (581721) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:06PM (#36755270)

    By the way, Zimbardo's book about it, The Lucifer Effect is absolutely fascinating. The way they all got so pulled into the experiment is just crazy. Luckily, Zimbardo's grad student girlfriend came around. You see Zimbardo got so pulled into his own role as the experimenter/warden that he lost site of the fact that the experiment had become extremely inhumane and he needed to stop it. They needed new eyes to come in and end it.

    What is even more interesting than Zimbardo not ending the thing was the prisoners not ending it. After all, they weren't actually prisoners. They should have just walked away.

    He also has a fascinating discussion on Abu Ghraib. He discusses the personalities involved in the events and how it led to it. (The sociopath who started it. His girlfriend Lindy England, who got pulled in. The leader of the facility who couldn't pull the situation under control and who's appeals to superiors fell on death ears.)

    It is amazing that we do actually live in a world where people willing become slaves. This experiment gave us great insights into social psychology.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      All of this would be very fascinating if the whole experiment hadn't been irreparably flawed from the beginning. Zimbardo essentially selected the people most likely to produce the result that would "confirm" his hypothesis.

      The greatest insights that came from this procedure were insights into how easily people will assimilate a faux-science "finding" into popular psychology, especially when the result is "shocking" in a way that allows them to denounce the immorality of society.

      • by Man On Pink Corner (1089867) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:40PM (#36755594)

        Zimbardo essentially selected the people most likely to produce the result that would "confirm" his hypothesis.

        Which is the most chilling implication of the experiment! The idea that you can always find people willing to do harmful things while the rest stand aside is enough to undermine the whole concept of individual morality.

        Together with the equally infamous Milgram experiment, which has been shown to be reproducible under all sorts of conditions, Zimbardo's work shows how humans, as basically non-'evil' beings, rationalize and perpetuate organized acts of evil. (How many times have you heard someone say, "If I don't do $BAD_THING, somebody else will. Maybe the best thing to do is for me to take the job, and try to change the system from within"?)

        • Which is the most chilling implication of the experiment! The idea that you can always find people willing to do harmful things while the rest stand aside is enough to undermine the whole concept of individual morality.

          Together with the equally infamous Milgram experiment, which has been shown to be reproducible under all sorts of conditions, Zimbardo's work shows how humans, as basically non-'evil' beings, rationalize and perpetuate organized acts of evil. (How many times have you heard someone say, "If I don't do $BAD_THING, somebody else will. Maybe the best thing to do is for me to take the job, and try to change the system from within"?)

          Unites States Marines go through thirteen weeks of that stuff. It doesn't even make sense for prison operation because their goal is to rehabilitate civilians and it's not really sustainable anyway. It's too expensive, you'd have to rotate guards often because they will get weak eventually, and would require tons of training. The "prisoners" will adjust eventually. You can't permanently break someone's will and still be anywhere near the realm of merely 'questionable' ethics.

          I think you guys are reading

          • by ultranova (717540)

            Unites States Marines go through thirteen weeks of that stuff. It doesn't even make sense for prison operation because their goal is to rehabilitate civilians and it's not really sustainable anyway. It's too expensive, you'd have to rotate guards often because they will get weak eventually, and would require tons of training. The "prisoners" will adjust eventually. You can't permanently break someone's will and still be anywhere near the realm of merely 'questionable' ethics.

            The point of Stanford Prisoner

      • by Jiro (131519)

        I'm reminded of Kitty Genovese. The popular wisdom about this case, exacerbated by a bad New York Times article, turned out to be pretty much false even though it has been used to denounce society for decades.

      • by mosb1000 (710161)

        I don't think you need a study to allow you to "denounce the immorality of society". I'm pretty sure most people feel comfortable denouncing immorality whenever they see it.

        • by ultranova (717540)

          I don't think you need a study to allow you to "denounce the immorality of society". I'm pretty sure most people feel comfortable denouncing immorality whenever they see it.

          Most people feel comfortable denouncing immorality whether it's society they see, or their own shadow. That's why you need a study, unless the problem is really obvious - and even then it's possible that it's only obvious to you.

      • What are you talking about? In what way did he pick the people most likely to confirm his hypothesis?
    • by DeadDecoy (877617)

      It is amazing that we do actually live in a world where people willing become slaves. This experiment gave us great insights into social psychology.

      This point is interesting in that a few very early philosophers have discussed this phenomena where some seek to be leaders while others seek to be led. I believe Archimedes argued that there is a natural paradigm for slave/master and Nietze that some men are just born better. It's unpleasant to consider, but we do live with these dichotomies to one degree or another.

      • by hitmark (640295)

        That someone seek to be leader do not make them fit to be so.

        Still, our nearest relatives among animals do live in groups structured around leaders and led. Not sure if that automatically makes the led slaves tho, as the led will pounce on the leader if they see a weakness.

        As for Nietzsche, his writing was modified by his sister to fit certain German trends at the time, so i would be careful about referencing him depending on the source being the edited version or not.

        Still, the ultimate question is if huma

        • I've always felt there were really three types - not just Nietzche's purported (I've never read it) "Master" and "Slave" but also a third type - "Creative". The creatives just want to create things - software, art, buildings, spaceships - and want to be neither master nor slave. Of the three types, creatives are probably the rarest.

          But I'd also like to see these ideas explored from the perspective of hunters vs. farmers (ref.Thom Hartmann's books on ADD). Perhaps the master and slave are just two parts o

          • by hitmark (640295)

            There was a claim made once that if one put aspies on one island and other humans on a different island, the aspie one could develop the science and arts while the other would develop politics and religion.

      • by ultranova (717540)

        This point is interesting in that a few very early philosophers have discussed this phenomena where some seek to be leaders while others seek to be led.

        There is a difference between a "master" and a "leader", just as there is a difference between a "slave" and a "follower". The difference is, roughly speaking, that masters force their slaves into serving them, while leaders serve their followers. A master is simply a parasite, while a leader is just doing a job that needs doing, just like a plumber or a ca

    • by manaway (53637) * on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @08:23PM (#36756726)

      The way they all got so pulled into the experiment is just crazy. Luckily, Zimbardo's grad student girlfriend came around.

      This is one of the most fascinating insights: it's not crazy but typical. These were students who tested average on psychological exams (to the extent you can measure average), and still did these atrocious acts on people just like themselves. On fellow students whose only crime was the flip of a coin. Want further evidence? See the Milgram experiment [wikimedia.org], where 2/3rds of people were willing to kill another person because an authority figure told them to. Not bad apples, not racists, not evil doers [wikimedia.org], not terrorists, just people--you and me and our neighbors.

      The experiments are no longer allowed in psychiatric studies, but are allowed in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Egypt (under Mubarak, not sure about now), Romania, Israel (where torture testimony is admissible), Afghanistan, and others. Where is Zimbardo's girlfriend now? You, me, our neighbors?

      • by Macrat (638047)

        Want further evidence? See the Milgram experiment [wikimedia.org], where 2/3rds of people were willing to kill another person because an authority figure told them to. Not bad apples, not racists, not evil doers [wikimedia.org], not terrorists, just people--you and me and our neighbors.

        You've never met my neighbors.

        • Want further evidence? See the Milgram experiment [wikimedia.org], where 2/3rds of people were willing to kill another person because an authority figure told them to. Not bad apples, not racists, not evil doers [wikimedia.org], not terrorists, just people--you and me and our neighbors.

          You've never met my neighbors.

          So are they the sociopaths willing to randomly kill people, or are you willing to randomly kill them?

  • Guantanamo Bay (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Normal Dan (1053064) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:12PM (#36755326)
    Now imagine this same experiment being done for for several years instead of days and with no one to step in when things get out of hand.

    Now imagine if the guards were told the prisoners were evil terrorists.
  • by overshoot (39700) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:13PM (#36755340)
    Probably the most important social psychology experiment ever. It's totally transformed the way the United States is governed.
  • by Meshach (578918) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:17PM (#36755376)
    • From what I briefly read, the conditions sound just like Marine Corps boot camp, and not a prison so much...

  • I am not a number, I am a free man

  • TSA (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hoggoth (414195) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:48PM (#36755684) Journal

    This experiment is being conducted right now by the TSA.

    • Actually, there are interesting parallels... when flying internationally, you try to catch a nap, only to have the attendants come by at the most inopportune times to offer you a snack/pillow/etc. By the time you land, you're generally suffering sleep deprivation. You then complete your business, and attempt to get back on your flight, still not having recovered from sleep deprivation and jet lag -- and are confronted with the TSA.

      It's not as severe as the SPE, but the general traits reflected in the pris

      • by Nimey (114278)

        Not to mention being woken up hourly by the fuckwit a few seats over who keeps hitting the stewardess-summoning button, or by the stew who keeps getting into his baggage which is stored right above your head.

        Red-eye from O'Hare to Glasgow, /then/ I had to deal with HM Customs, whose agent was just as rude as TSA's equivalent.

  • French Torture Show (Score:5, Informative)

    by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @06:57PM (#36755750)

    Oh.. but it has been repeated recently...

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8571929.stm [bbc.co.uk]

    This is from 2010.

  • Movie (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Warlord88 (1065794) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @07:00PM (#36755770)
    The German movie Das Experiment [imdb.com] is based on this experiment. Although they exaggerate quite a lot towards the end, first few days of the movie are real. Overall, an entertaining watch.
    • Re:Movie (Score:5, Informative)

      by yali (209015) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @07:20PM (#36755944)
      For the record, Zimbardo has objected to Das Experiment's portrayal of his experiment, on the grounds that (a) it isn't clear which parts are reenactments and which parts are fictionalized, and (b) in his view the movie doesn't properly explain why the study was scientifically important. Read his side of it here. [apa.org]
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by geekoid (135745)

        Zimbardo can go on and on about the experiments scientific important, but he is wrong.

        It was so poorly designer, got so out of control, and had no controls that any data is useless to anyone with the sole exception of people looking at what not to do in an experiment.

        • You are contradicting yourself: If people are looking at the SPE for things not to do, something relevant must have come out of it.

    • by lennier1 (264730)

      Strangely, the German movie based on "The Wave" suffers from the same problem.

    • The Experiment [imdb.com] is the 2010 remake, I would guess. Dramatised (participant dies, violent revolt as prisoners escape hangar-like building), but still a reasonable film.
  • Abu Ghraib (Score:5, Interesting)

    by formfeed (703859) on Wednesday July 13, 2011 @11:12PM (#36758294)

    When the abuse in Abu Ghraib became public I was surprised by the reactions. Not the shock and/or denial by the public. But the way the soldiers were singled out as a "few bad apples" by people higher up in command.

    How apparently normal, non-sadistic, average 20 year olds turned into sadistic guards was classic Zimbardo. I immediately thought of Zimbardo's prison experiment: There doesn't need to be a direct order, all it takes is an environment with unspecific rules and guards wanting to fulfill their role.

    Not to defend the soldiers involved in the abuse, but Zimbardo is pretty well known. Either people in charge didn't have the proper skills to set-up a clear structure that would prevent this or they deliberately counted on it to happen, being later able to deny any responsibility and scape-goat the "guards".

    • by RingDev (879105)

      The fact that untrained National Guardsmen were put into a prison guard position speaks to the total incompotence of the leadership.

      I remember hearing this story break, and my response was "Well duh, what did they think would happen? Did they never hear of the Stanford project?"

      These were part timers. They do one weekend a month, and a couple of weeks camping out in the summer. They don't have psych screening or extensive training in prison environments. They aren't professional soldiers. They are college k

  • This is what happens in real life and they just stopped the study. Obviously there was indeed physiological trauma but life is full of trauma. We need to understand how people are affected and possibly how to mitigate the damage. What those students went though was nothing compared to real life. God forbid they actually had to fight a war, go to real prison, or be a bullied minority in a society.

    We have children in foster care and the juvenile delinquent system that have to live through a minimum of ten

  • Germans at the time were very submissive to authority - like the Japanese, they believed that, above all, there was duty, i.e. submission to the people above them in the social hierarchy.

    And although many had doubts about what they were doing, in the end, they did what allowed for the monster that was Nazi Germany to be created.

    • by cheros (223479)

      I don't think you should just single out the Germans and the Japanese there. Attitudes ALWAYS flow downwards, that's how leaders lacking any kind of moral fiber can create so much damage.

      Bush, Blair, Enron, Lehman Brothers, Murdoch: in both politics and business, leaders shape the kind of attitudes you get and thus wether you're heading for a society or for a mess.

I find you lack of faith in the forth dithturbing. - Darse ("Darth") Vader

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