Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 2b

What’s fascinating is that most guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment remained hesitant to apply ‘tough’ tactics at all, even under mounting pressure. Two-thirds refused to take part in the sadistic games. One-third treated the prisoners with kindness, to Zimbardo and his team’s frustration. One of the guards resigned the Sunday before the experiment started, saying he couldn’t go along with the instructions. In Why Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment Isn’t in My Textbook, there is a quotation, from John Mark, who had been one of the guards in Zimbardo's "experiment." It's from the July/Aug, 2011 issue of the Stanford Alumni magazine: 

"During the day shift, when I worked, no one did anything that was beyond what you'd expect in a situation like that. But Zimbardo went out of his way to create tension. Things like forced sleep deprivation — he was really pushing the envelope. I just didn't like the whole idea of constantly disturbing people and asking them to recite their prisoner numbers in a count. I certainly didn't like when they put a guy in solitary confinement.

"At that time of my life, I was getting high, all day every day. I got high before I went to the experiment; I got high on my breaks and lunch. I got high afterwards. I brought joints with me, and every day I wanted to give them to the prisoners. I looked at their faces and saw how they were getting dispirited and I felt sorry for them.

"I didn't think it was ever meant to go the full two weeks. I think Zimbardo wanted to create a dramatic crescendo, and then end it as quickly as possible. I felt that throughout the experiment, he knew what he wanted and then tried to shape the experiment — by how it was constructed, and how it played out — to fit the conclusion that he had already worked out. He wanted to be able to say that college students, people from middle-class backgrounds — people will turn on each other just because they're given a role and given power.

"Based on my experience, and what I saw and what I felt, I think that was a real stretch. I don't think the actual events match up with the bold headline. I never did, and I haven't changed my opinion."

The big problem with the Stanford Prison Experiment had always been that it was so unethical that no one dared to replicate it and so Zimbardo had for decades been the final authority on the subject. But then, two British psychologists designed an experiment for the BBC to answer the question: what happens to ordinary people when they don a uniform and step inside a prison? Bregman says that it was an effort to sit through the resulting 4 hr. program because nothing much happened. The main difference from Zimbardo's experiment was that the psychologists didn’t tell the guards what to do. All they did was observe. 

Things were just getting started when one guard announced he didn’t feel suited to the role of guard: ‘I’d rather be a prisoner, honestly …’ On day two, another suggested sharing the guards’ food with the prisoners to boost morale. Then on day four, when it looked like some sparks might fly, a guard advised a prisoner: ‘If we can get to the end of this, we can go down the pub and have a drink.’ Another guard chimed in, ‘Let’s discuss this like human beings.’ Or, as the Sunday Herald summed it up, ‘What happens when you put good men in an evil place and film it for telly? Erm, not that much actually.’ 

From a scientific perspective, the experiment was a resounding success. Haslam and Reicher (the psychologists who conducted the study) published more than ten articles about their results in prestigious academic journals. But the BBC Prison Study has since faded into obscurity, while people still talk about the Stanford Prison Experiment. This exposes a harsh truth: if a study shows the negative side of human character, it will receive wide publicity; if it shows the good side, it will be ignored.

The Stanford Prison Experiment attempts to show what today’s social psychologists call situationism: the idea that people’s behavior is determined largely by what’s happening around them. If you put people in certain situations, they are more likely to be racist or sexist, or they may lie or cheat. But continued to its logical extreme, situationism, according to one psychologist, “has an exonerating effect”. “In the minds of a lot of people, it tends to excuse the bad behavior … it’s not the person’s fault for doing the bad thing, it’s the situation they were put in.” 

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 2a

“Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.” - Oscar Wilde

In the 1970s, sociologist Erving Goffmann introduced the concept of ‘framing’ – each of us views the world through a mental picture frame which enables us to make sense out of our jumble of experiences. In Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman discusses some of the most well-known narratives of modern times - the novel Lord of the Flies, the end of the Easter Islanders, Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram's Obedience Experiment, the Bystander effect etc. All of them give prominence to the negative side of human character. But the popular interpretations of all of them have major problems.

Take Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo’s experiment is one of the two or three most famous experiments in the history of psychology. It is depicted in movies, television and introductory psychology textbooks. In the years that followed the experiment, Zimbardo would grow to be the most noted psychologist of his time, becoming president of the American Psychological Association. In the decades since the experiment, millions of people have fallen for Philip Zimbardo’s setup. He has repeatedly emphasized his view that this experiment reveals much that is significant in understanding what happens in real prisons.

The standard description of Zimbardo’s experiment is as follows. In order to gain insight about the behavior of prisoners and guards in real prisons, Zimbardo and his colleagues constructed a simulated prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University. Then they recruited 21 psychologically healthy male college students and randomly assigned 10 of them to be prisoners and the other 11 to be guards. The prisoners were to be held captive in the simulated prison around the clock for two weeks, and the guards were to serve duty in the prison on eight-hour daily shifts, so there were always at least 3 of them in the prison at any given time. For this, they would be paid $15 a day.

The results, in brief, were that the guards behaved toward the prisoners in “negative, hostile, affrontive and dehumanizing” ways. The prisoners behaved alternately in rebellious and passive ways. At one point, on the second day, they ripped off their clothing and identification numbers while shouting curses at the guards. Later, five of the prisoners reacted with such extreme emotions that they were removed from the study before the end of five days. By the end of the sixth day the behavior of the guards and prisoners had spiraled to the point that Zimbardo decided to end the experiment early. "These guys were all peaceniks," he said of the students chosen to be guards. "They became like Nazis."

The standard interpretation: In a prison, one group has power over another and the powerless group is stripped of their individual identities. This  creates extreme, maladaptive responses that are characteristic of the responses often seen in real prisons. Those in power become abusive, and those subject to that power become immature, passive, and rebellious. These effects do not have to do with differences in original personality (because in the experiment, the subjects were randomly assigned to roles). Rather, they result from the situation in which people find themselves. 

Bregman writes, ‘Philip Zimbardo’s study wasn’t just dubious. It was a hoax.’ A major problem with the experiment is with its 'demand characteristics'. Any characteristics of a psychology experiment that let research participants guess how the experimenters expect or want them to behave are referred to as demand characteristics. In any valid experiment, it is essential to eliminate or at least minimize demand characteristics. In this experiment, the demands were everywhere.

Zimbardo claimed in many interviews that his prison ‘guards’ turned sadistic of their own accord. Subsequent revelations about the experiment reveal that the guards didn’t even have to guess how they were supposed to behave; they were largely told how by Zimbardo and his associates. In his relatively recent book, The Lucifer Effect (which I have not read but is quoted by Bregman), Zimbardo mentions a meeting with the guards that took place on the Saturday preceding the experiment. There could be no mistaking his instructions:

We can create a sense of frustration. We can create fear in them […] We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. They’re going to be wearing uniforms, and at no time will anybody call them by name; they will have numbers and be called only by their numbers. In general, what all this should create in them is a sense of powerlessness.

Is this not an overt invitation to be abusive in all sorts of psychological ways? The supposedly independent scientist had, by his own admission, drilled his guards. They hadn’t come up with the idea to address the prisoners by numbers, or to wear sunglasses, or play sadistic games. It’s what they were told to do. And, when the guards did behave in these ways and escalated that behavior, with Zimbardo watching and apparently (by his silence) approving, it would have confirmed in the subjects’ minds that they were behaving as they should.

Most of the subjects stuck it out because Zimbardo paid well. They didn’t get the money until afterwards. Guards and prisoners alike feared that if they didn’t play along in Zimbardo’s dramatic production, they wouldn’t get paid. Not only that, on the Saturday before the experiment started, Zimbardo was already talking about ‘we’ and ‘they’ as though he and the guards were on the same team. Which meant that the story he later told about losing himself in the role of prison superintendent as the experiment progressed couldn’t be true.