The Stanford Prison scam

“I felt as though 200 daggers were being thrown at my back,” said Capilano psychology professor Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani at the Capilano Psych Club’s most recent event. He was describing the moment he stood up to question the scientific value of a historically important, if shockingly unethical, study in human behaviour. The study in question was Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Project, a famous yet controversial “experiment” on human aggression that is standard curriculum for entry level psychology in universities. Jhangiani confronted Zimbardo last November at Kwantlen University, where he was a visiting guest speaker, right after the renowned Stanford psychologist’s standing ovation.

In the summer of 1971, Zimbardo conducted a study at Stanford University in California on the psychology of prison life. He put an ad in a newspaper calling for male volunteers. The men chosen were divided into prisoners and guards. Zimbardo, who played the role of superintendent, debriefed the guards on the rules of how they could treat the prisoners. He gave them license to dehumanize them using all means except violence. A police car was then sent to surprise the prisoners by arresting them in broad daylight in front of their families and neighbours for the charges of burglary and robbery. The men, who were all college students, were brought to the prison that had been constructed in the basement of the university, then searched, stripped naked, and deloused. For the next six days interactions between the prisoners and guards grew increasingly hostile.

Although all members of the study were officially allowed to quit at any time (which some did), because of rumours allowed to circulate in the prison, several inmates believed that they were locked into their commitments and suffered abuses against their will. The study involved both psychological and physical abuse, including homophobic slurs, cleaning toilets with bare hands, and spending time confined in a closet. After six days, at the insistence of his girlfriend, Zimbardo terminated the study because the situation in the mock prison had degraded to a point where psychological harm to the participants had become a concern. Illustrating this danger, one “prisoner” reflecting on his experiences in the study said: “I began to feel that I was losing my identity … the person who volunteered to go into this prison … because it is a prison. It still is a prison to me.” Despite the premature termination of the study, Zimbardo concluded that the results demonstrated that a situation involving hierarchical power structures can taint the average person’s conduct and sense of morality, thus changing fundamentally good people into tyrants.

Most psychologists agree that the ethical standards of the Stanford Prison Project were reprehensible. At the time of the study, psychology guidelines for the protection of participants had not yet been formalized. Zimbardo himself admits that many of the details in his study were morally questionable at best. Jhangiani’s complaints, however, are not aimed at the ethics of the study, but rather at its scientific merit, or lack thereof.

Jhangiani begins his critique of the prison study by pointing out that from the beginning there were problems. First of all, despite Zimbardo’s consistent assertion that the study was an experiment, it clearly wasn’t. Experiments, by definition, must have a control group and independent variables. That is, they must have a comparison group where conditions are kept steady and an experimental group where variables are manipulated to show their impact. Jhangiani also highlights that Zimbardo directly interacted with participants during the study and therefore could have unconsciously influenced outcomes. Beyond this, all efforts should be made in studies and experiments to keep the sample group representative of the target population. An advertisement calling for volunteers for a prison study isn’t likely to attract a random sample of the public. Furthermore, from the 75 applicants, the 24 used were not chosen arbitrarily, but specifically, for their lack of mental illnesses, criminal records, or histories of recreational drug use. Incidentally, when researching the applicant questionnaire given by Zimbardo, Jhangiani uncovered that the men who completed the study scored above average on aggressiveness, Machiavellianism (manipulative tendencies), and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism scores were four times higher for those who finished, and this reflects an overall willingness to obey superiors and oppress subordinates. In other words, these were the kind of guys who, with a little authority and a taser in hand, could have proven quite dangerous. From the 24 chosen, Zimbardo used a coin flip to randomly assign the men to their roles; however, for only partially documented reasons, from the two groups of 12, only nine in each group were used. From the nine prisoners, five requested and were granted the right to exit the study before its termination. The nine guards remained in the study until the end. Jhangiani states that from this tiny, unrepresentative group, Zimbardo has made sweeping generalizations regarding human nature and the power of situational forces.

Zimbardo, in fact, has built his career on this study. In recent years, for example, he has published a book called The Lucifer Effect, which again discusses his conclusions from the Stanford Prison Project. He continues to reference the study on speaking tours, and he was even called on by the American government to testify as an expert witness in the case of Abu Ghraib, the US military prison in Iraq, using the results to defend perpetrators of abuses.

Jhangiani is quick to point out that Zimbardo has engaged in scientifically sound research during his career and that this is not a personal attack, but rather a challenge to bad science that has had a significant impact on both the field of psychology and the mainstream understanding of situational influences. Jhangiani also uses the example of genocide as a reminder that, in fact, situations can overpower personalities, but he insists the Stanford Study has nothing to add to this discussion.

Since Jhangiani’s encounter with Zimbardo, he has developed a much more in-depth critique of the study and now plans to submit his findings to a peer reviewed journal. Perhaps Capilano U’s first psychology cage match is on the horizon! A more recent replication of the Stanford study, usually referred to as the BBC Prison Experiment and designed by psychologists Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher for the BBC in 2002, was modified to address all of the scientific flaws in the original study. It has served to further validate Jhangiani’s dissenting viewpoint because its outcome was vastly different than Zimbardo’s version.

Whereas the title of Zimbardo’s new book, The Lucifer Effect, alludes to the transformation of good into evil, Jhangiani likes to affectionately call his critique the Bruno Effect. This title pays homage to Giordano Bruno, a 16th century philosopher who dared, in his support of new science, to suggest a universe in which the planets revolved around the sun, publicly questioning the generally accepted belief that the Earth was the centre of the universe.

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: