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A closer look at the Stanford prison experiment
- I want to take a moment to talk a little bit about the Zimbardo prison study, and what conclusions we can draw from it. But first, I want you to remember that all of the participants were the same, or very similar, when they walked in. They were all college students, and they all had the same middle-class background, and they had all been screened for any kind of physical or psychological conditions before the start of the study. And I also wanted to talk about the prison itself. After watching my previous video, I thought that it maybe gave the impression that the prisoners banded together and helped each other out. And while there were a few instances of this behavior, it really wasn't the norm. In reality, the prisoners were pretty distrustful of each other. They saw each other as informants. And the guards' unequal treatment really didn't encourage solidarity. They tended to reward those who they saw as good prisoners by giving them different privileges, like better food. And by allowing them to keep their mattresses and to wash themselves, or brush their teeth after they had punished the rebellious prisoners by taking those things away. And by giving privileges to some inmates and not others, the guards really broke any solidarity that the prisoners had. I also want to note that while there were a number of participants in the prisoner condition that were released from the experiment because of emotional trauma, none of the prisoners ever just stopped and left. And they must have been aware that they were able to do so at least on some level, because it was told to them at the beginning of the experiment. It was in the consent form that they signed. But they didn't. And this always really confused me. And it's possible that maybe some of them misunderstood and didn't think that they could leave. Maybe they somehow convinced each other to stay. Or maybe they knew that they could leave, but they didn't want to forfeit any of the money that they were going to get for the experiment. It really isn't clear. But I just want to point out that while these participants were being treated like prisoners, they were not actually prisoners. They were volunteers who could have left at any point. Now let's talk a little bit about the guards. One question afterwards about why the had treated the prisoners so harshly, especially in the face of the prisoners' emotional distress, many of them said that they thought that the prisoners were just faking it, or that they were wimps. Or that they deserved it because they were troublemakers. But really most of them didn't think that their behavior was all that extreme. And they placed basically all of the blame for their behavior on the prisoners. I mentioned this before in the last video, but while a number of the prisoners left the study before the six days were up, none of the guards left. And in fact, some of them were even upset that the experiment ended early. And you might be wondering if there was any kind of personality trait that might explain why people behave the way that they did in the study. And Zimbardo wondered that too. And it turned out that there wasn't. As far as any of the measures that they used could tell, there was no one, easy to define factor that caused people to act like they did. What do we learn from all of this? Well, what it really shows us is the influence that situations can have on our behavior. And that much of what we do might be the result of situational attribution, or the environment or situations that we're put in. Even more than dispositional attribution, or the internal characteristics or personalities that people have. It also shows us that it becomes much easier to behave badly towards individuals who suffer from deindividuation, or the loss of self. Which in this case was brought on by a number of things. By the prisoners being forced to dress in the same smock, and by making them be addressed as a number instead of their name. It also shows us that bad behavior can result from cognitive dissonance. That the guards, knowing on some level that their behavior was inappropriate, sought to decrease their dissonance, or their mental distress, by overly justifying their behaviors. By saying that everything happened because the prisoners were wimps and that they were faking it, or that they deserved this. The study also shows us about the rule of internalization. Because it seemed like the participants really internalized their prison roles. They incorporated this role into their beliefs, and let it influence their attitudes, cognitions, and behaviors. But as important as the study is, and as well-known as it is, there are a number of problems with the study. And I think the most interesting problem stems from the role that Zimbardo himself played in the study. Specifically, he decided to make himself the prison warden in order to better observe the behaviors of the inmates. But by doing so, by placing himself within the situation, he inadvertently compromised his objectivity. He wasn't a neutral observer. And in the end, he was so involved that he wasn't able to realize when things had gone too far. And so he passively allowed a lot of unethical behavior to occur. In fact, when he was questioned as to why he didn't stop the experiment earlier, when the prisoners started to break down, he himself claimed that he thought that they were just faking it in order to get released. Which is exactly what the guards had said. Another problem is that as far as study methodologies go, this isn't really a good experiment. What were the operational definitions of his dependent and independent variables? What were his dependent and independent variables? What is being manipulated? What is being measured? What were the controls in the study? It also had a really small sample size. Would he have gotten different results if different people were involved? Well, we can't exactly replicate it, so it's sort of hard to know. The study is also a great example of how demand characteristics might influence a study. And this term refers to how much of the participants' behavior might have been influenced by how they thought the experimenters wanted them to behave. Either consciously or unconsciously. And so it's possible that all of the participants in the study, at least on some level, were just acting the way that they thought that Zimbardo wanted them to act. The study is also one that could've been greatly effected by selection bias. Really, here more than most studies. Because there was no deception in the study, so in some ways, the participants all knew exactly what they were signing up for. And I have to think, what kind of student willingly signs up to be put in a prison, either as a guard or a prisoner, for two full weeks? I can think of a lot of better ways that someone could spend their time. And so whenever I think about this study, I just have to ask, even though they did lots of psychological tests, was this really a random sample? What do all of these things mean for the experiment? Are these problems bad enough to discredit its results? I personally don't think so. And that's because its results line up with other studies on conformity and obedience that had much stricter methodologies. But even so, I think it's really important to keep all of these things in mind, not just for the Zimbardo study, but for any study that we see that seems to have really extreme results.