The most famous psychology study of all time was...

If you took psychology, I'll bet you studied this study. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

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Stanford Prison Experiment

Next week marks 50 years from the day on which a group of Stanford University graduate students began playing the roles of inmates and guards in a mock jail.

Run by a Stanford professor named Philip Zimbardo, the exercise was originally supposed to last 14 days. But it was reportedly shut down early when both the jailers and the jailed began to take their roles too seriously. As a Stanford magazine put it:

[Fifty] years later, the Stanford Prison Experiment remains among the most notable—and notorious—research projects ever carried out at the University. For six days, half the study's participants endured cruel and dehumanizing abuse at the hands of their peers.

At various times, they were taunted, stripped naked, deprived of sleep, and forced to use plastic buckets as toilets. Some of them rebelled violently; others became hysterical or withdrew into despair.

As the situation descended into chaos, the researchers stood by and watched—until one of their colleagues finally spoke out.

If you took a psychology class in college, I can almost guarantee you studied this experiment. It was highly influential.

During the Abu Ghraib scandal, it was widely used as a metaphor for the situation US guards created within the Iraqi prison, and Dr. Zimbardo testified as an expert witness on behalf of one: US Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, who was ultimately sentenced to eight years in prison.

But more recently, the experiment has been facing withering criticism and skepticism—and a back-and-forth over its authenticity that might never be definitively settled.

As Vox put it in a summary in 2018, the Stanford Prison Experiment's "findings were wrong. Very wrong. And not just due to its questionable ethics or lack of concrete data—but because of deceit."

Much of the recent criticism is the result of the work of a PhD researcher and journalist named Ben Blum. Among his findings, based on found footage and audio recordings, along with a French filmmaker's work on the subject, Blum reported that:

  • A "prisoner" who famously had a breakdown just hours after the experiment began admitted to Blum in an interview that he’d been just fine—merely acting and playing a part as he’d been instructed.

  • "Guards" who supposedly began acting sadistically of their own accord (basically the entire main takeaway of the experiment) had in fact been coached and told to be mean.

  • Other “guards" who supposedly came up with their own strict rules for the prisoners actually copied them from an earlier "fake jail" experiment—or learned the tactics from a former San Quentin inmate who served as a consultant on the project.

"The most famous psychology study of all time was a sham," Blum wrote in his more than 7,000-word expose, The Lifespan of a Lie, published on Medium.

As you might imagine, Zimbardo defended his work—largely in a 6,800-word response: partly denying Blum’s accusations, and partly conceding that some of his allegations might be true, but that they don’t undercut the experiment’s value.

“[W]hatever its flaws,” Zimbardo wrote, “I continue to believe that the Stanford Prison Experiment contributes to psychology’s understanding of human behavior and its complex dynamics. … The more we understand all of these dynamics and the complex way they interact with each other, the better we will be at promoting what is best in human nature. That has been my lifelong mission.”

More recently, Thibault Le Texier—the French filmmaker whose work partially prompted Blum’s examination—tried to synthesize everything in a peer-reviewed article in American Psychologist, the official journal of the American Psychological Association.

“Hopefully,” he writes in its conclusion, “the present study will contribute to psychology’s epistemological self-examination and expose the SPE for what it was: an incredibly flawed study that should have died an early death.”

It’s unusual to find a fitting ending in the middle of something, but I think we can land on one here. In Blum’s Medium article, he actually interviewed Zimbardo at length.

Asked what he thought the legacy of the experiment would now be, the Stanford psychologist, who is now 88, just sounded tired:

“I don’t know. In a sense, I don’t really care. At this point, the big problem is, I don’t want to waste any more of my time. … People can say whatever they want about it. It’s the most famous study in the history of psychology at this point.

There’s no study that people talk about 50 years later. … I’m not going to defend it anymore. The defense is its longevity.”

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7 other things worth your time


Thanks for reading; see you at 1 pm. (I hope). Photo: YouTube screen grab from the movie about the Stanford Prison Experiment. I wrote about this experiment controversy once before for Inc.com. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.