Monday, August 03, 2015

Check out "The Stanford Prison Experiment"

by Salman Hameed

There is a good chance that you have heard of The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. I had also read about it and knew the general contours of the results. But I didn't know the specifics - especially the details that led to the shutting down of the experiment only six days into the 2-week project. Now there is a new fantastic film by the name of The Stanford Prison Experiment (now that makes it easy to know what the movie is about...) that dramatizes the experiment and, from what I have read, does a very good job of staying faithful to the events. It is an intense film (so, no - probably not a good date film) and has imagery that will remind you - though not to that level of savagery - of Abu Ghraib pictures. In the movie, Billy Cudrup plays psychologist Philip Zimbardo and he is excellent (as he was earlier in the fantastic film, Almost Famous). Here is Cudrup in the movie as young Zimbardo, and Zimbardo today:

Here is the trailer for the film (the movie is also available On Demand):

If you want to know more about the critique of the original experiment as well as the movie, then you should read this excellent article from The New Yorker, The real lesson from the Stanford Prison Experiment:

Less than a decade earlier, the Milgram obedience study had shown that ordinary people, if encouraged by an authority figure, were willing to shock their fellow-citizens with what they believed to be painful and potentially lethal levels of electricity. To many, the Stanford experiment underscored those findings, revealing the ease with which regular people, if given too much power, could transform into ruthless oppressors. Today, more than forty-five years later, many look to the study to make sense of events like the behavior of the guards at Abu Ghraib and America’s epidemic of police brutality. The Stanford Prison Experiment is cited as evidence of the atavistic impulses that lurk within us all; it’s said to show that, with a little nudge, we could all become tyrants. 
And yet the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment aren’t so clear-cut. From the beginning, the study has been haunted by ambiguity. Even as it suggests that ordinary people harbor ugly potentialities, it also testifies to the way our circumstances shape our behavior. Was the study about our individual fallibility, or about broken institutions? Were its findings about prisons, specifically, or about life in general? What did the Stanford Prison Experiment really show?
The article then goes on to do an excellent job of providing a thorough critique of the experiment and brings up a BBC study of a similar nature as well:
If the Stanford Prison Experiment had simulated a less brutal environment, would the prisoners and guards have acted differently? In December, 2001, two psychologists, Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, tried to find out. They worked with the documentaries unit of the BBC to partially recreate Zimbardo’s setup over the course of an eight-day experiment. Their guards also had uniforms, and were given latitude to dole out rewards and punishments; their prisoners were placed in three-person cells that followed the layout of the Stanford County Jail almost exactly. The main difference was that, in this prison, the preset expectations were gone. The guards were asked to come up with rules prior to the prisoners’ arrival, and were told only to make the prison run smoothly. (The BBC Prison Study, as it came to be called, differed from the Stanford experiment in a few other ways, including prisoner dress; for a while, moreover, the prisoners were told that they could become guards through good behavior, although, on the third day, that offer was revoked, and the roles were made permanent.) 
Within the first few days of the BBC study, it became clear that the guards weren’t cohering as a group. “Several guards were wary of assuming and exerting their authority,” the researchers wrote. The prisoners, on the other hand, developed a collective identity. In a change from the Stanford study, the psychologists asked each participant to complete a daily survey that measured the degree to which he felt solidarity with his group; it showed that, as the guards grew further apart, the prisoners were growing closer together. On the fourth day, three cellmates decided to test their luck. At lunchtime, one threw his plate down and demanded better food, another asked to smoke, and the third asked for medical attention for a blister on his foot. The guards became disorganized; one even offered the smoker a cigarette. Reicher and Haslam reported that, after the prisoners returned to their cells, they “literally danced with joy.” (“That was fucking sweet,” one prisoner remarked.) Soon, more prisoners began to challenge the guards. They acted out during roll call, complained about the food, and talked back. At the end of the sixth day, the three insubordinate cellmates broke out and occupied the guards’ quarters. “At this point,” the researchers wrote, “the guards’ regime was seen by all to be unworkable and at an end.” 
Taken together, these two studies don’t suggest that we all have an innate capacity for tyranny or victimhood. Instead, they suggest that our behavior largely conforms to our preconceived expectations. All else being equal, we act as we think we’re expected to act—especially if that expectation comes from above. Suggest, as the Stanford setup did, that we should behave in stereotypical tough-guard fashion, and we strive to fit that role. Tell us, as the BBC experimenters did, that we shouldn’t give up hope of social mobility, and we act accordingly. 
This understanding might seem to diminish the power of the Stanford Prison Experiment. But, in fact, it sharpens and clarifies the study’s meaning. Last weekend brought the tragic news of Kalief Browder’s suicide. At sixteen, Browder was arrested, in the Bronx, for allegedly stealing a backpack; after the arrest, he was imprisoned at Rikers for three years without trial. (Ultimately, the case against him was dismissed.) While at Rikers, Browder was the object of violence from both prisoners and guards, some of which was captured on video. It’s possible to think that prisons are the way they are because human nature tends toward the pathological. But the Stanford Prison Experiment suggests that extreme behavior flows from extreme institutions. Prisons aren’t blank slates. Guards do indeed self-select into their jobs, as Zimbardo’s students self-selected into a study of prison life. Like Zimbardo’s men, they are bombarded with expectations from the first and shaped by preĆ«xisting norms and patterns of behavior. The lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors—and, perhaps, can change them.
Read the full article here


Kavierer Loopjers said...

Wonderful experiment i like your tricks and ideas. It is geneuine and wonderful way to teach. I have submit my article by the help of online certificate programs

Ayman Fadel said...

There's a 2001 German film with similar themes

I don't know enough about the experiments to say whether this film was an accurate representation.

A book by an expert witness at the US Abu Ghraib courts martial was very good. While not exactly the experiment, it certainly shows how institutional inertia/pressure lead to horrific results and zero accountability.

Ayman Fadel said...

Two resources might interest readers

Book by Abu Ghraib courts martial expert witness

2001 German film Das Experiment

Ayman Fadel said...

there's also <a href = ">a 2010 movie about it</a> written by Paul Scheuring. I have not seen it.