When Good People Do Bad Things

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For years, the Stanford Prison Study has been used to tout the idea that putting any individual in a position of absolute control brings out the worst in them (and in a more general sense, that people conform to the roles they’re placed in).


An article appearing in Scientific American (Rethinking the Infamous Stanford Prison Experiment) includes new information leading researchers to believe that the original study actually yielded highly inconclusive results and that the subjects in the study were told how to act by the researchers.

The Stanford Prison Study in a Nutshell

Researchers from Stanford University’s psychology department “arrested” a group of random young men in the summer of 1971. A coin was flipped and the result determined whether members of the group would be guards or prisoners. A 35-foot-long section of the psychology department basement was transformed into a “prison” and  “guards” were given wooden batons, official-looking uniforms,  mirrored sunglasses, and the study began. Soon after the beginning of the experiment, the guards began displaying remarkably cruel behavior toward the inmates; sadistic, even. Physical abuse, unsanitary conditions, and humiliating/demoralizing tactics were used to dehumanize the “prisoners”.

The study was halted earlier than planned because of the guards’ hostile behavior, and the results were published: people conform to the roles in which they’re placed. Those in a position of power over others can become cruel, compassionless, and even sadistic.

Problems With the Stanford Study’s Conclusion

The results of the Stanford study have been widely published, cited, and referenced in lectures, textbooks, films, and more. But the degree to which the published results reflected the accuracy of the study is now being called into question; more information about the study, including audio recordings of the way the researchers spoke to the guards, was recently carefully scrutinized. In these recordings, researchers are heard speaking to guards using extensive “us-them” vocabulary, essentially pitting the researchers and the guards against the inmates. Guards were encouraged to adopt an attitude of superiority and heavy-handedness. Researchers told one guard who had been reluctant to act with cruelty along with his peers that all guards needed to be known as “tough guards,” and encouraged him to “lend a hand.”

By using manipulative tactics to influence the guards’ emotions and attitudes on the study, researchers seem to have provoked the very results they expected: open hostility and cruelty from those in positions of power, and fearful, violent, rebellious reactions from the prisoners. It’s an interesting testament to the dynamics of psychological roles and power positions, for sure–but perhaps not the same testament that’s been widely accepted for so long.

Reaction from Zimbardo

Lead researcher Philip Zimbardo has tried to address these concerns. You can hear him do so in episode 69 of the APA podcast, “Speaking of Psychology“. The video below begins around 7 1/2 minutes into the video where you hear him address the critiques of the study.

The key points of his response are:

  1. This was 1971- a time when police were breaking up riots against the Vietnam war and as a result, college students didn’t really want to be police or guards and they hated their military uniforms. Thus, they needed a little encouragement to act in the role.
  2. In the beginning of the study very little happened between the “guards” and “prisoners” and some weren’t taking the study seriously.
  3. It’s true that one of the researchers told one “guard” on one shift to be tough, but, Zimbardo believes, telling only one guard to be tough doesn’t explain the abusive actions all the guards eventually took part in.

The Stanford study researchers have published this page in which they respond to the each criticism made about the Stanford study. They also published this consensus statement in an attempt to clarify their position on these criticisms.

It’s easy to see why there’s a lot of controversy around this study. It’s scary to think that ordinary people might do awful things when they are put into a role of authority. The value of the criticisms of this study might be that this doesn’t occur as easily as we used to think.

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