“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.
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