I thought this was settled: The Stanford Prison Experiments

This is the first in a mini-series of posts on bits of scientific knowledge – seemingly settled in the popular imagination – that are in fact sharply questioned by some practitioners.

The famous Stanford Prison Experiments, conducted by Stanford University psychologist Phillip Zombardo cast college students in the role of prison guards and prison inmates in a 2-week experiment designed to examine how easily students would assume the roles of tormentor and tormented if authorized to do so.

The students approached the experiment with gusto and the whole thing had to be stopped after 7 days because the student “guards” were physically abusing the student “inmates.”

It was a grim finding suggesting that the worst sorts of human behavior – both the aggressiveness of the abuser and the passiveness of the victim – lurked, for each of us, just beneath the surface, waiting to erupt in the right setting.

But Stephen Leavitt, University of Chicago economist and co-creator of the Freakonomics media empire –  thinks it is bogus. Essentially, he believes that the students embraced their roles so forcefully not because humans are always but a few inches from shedding their humanity to fall into the roles of abusers and abused, but rather because they were college students trying to impress and please their professors.

He suggests that the professors conducting the experiment were fairly transparent in what they were hoping to find and that the students gave them what they wanted. Leavitt implies that the danger of the violence – and the adversarial nature of the relationships between guards and inmates – was exaggerated by the students to please their professors (a few accounts from students support this), and then reported breathlessly by the experimenters because it confirmed their biases about human nature.

If the students believed they were just playing along – neither intending nor inflicting any real harm – in order to make their professors happy, then how steep a discount should we apply to conclusions on human behavior based on observations generated by the Stanford Prison Experiments?

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