Is Everything You Learned in Intro Psych Wrong?

The (debunked) myth of the Stanford Prison Study.

Posted Jun 28, 2018

Probably not everything, but quite a lot. This is the first entry in what may be an intermittent series of posts on "Stuff Everyone Who Took Intro Psych Knows, But Is Actually Wrong."

Lee Jussim
Source: Lee Jussim

Remember that Amazing, Dramatic Stanford/Zimbardo Prison Study? The one where regular everyday college students were randomly assigned to be prisoners or prison guards? And, supposedly, they so internalized their roles that the prisoners became passive and depressed, and the guards imperious and aggressive? And it got so bad Zimbardo had to terminate the “study” early?

Ben Blum described the legacy and common interpretations perfectly here:

"Since then, the tale of guards run amok and terrified prisoners breaking down one by one has become world-famous, a cultural touchstone that’s been the subject of books, documentaries, and feature films…

The SPE is often used to teach the lesson that our behavior is profoundly affected by the social roles and situations in which we find ourselves. But it's deeper, more disturbing implication is that we all have a wellspring of potential sadism lurking within us, waiting to be tapped by circumstance. It has been invoked to explain the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War, the Armenian genocide, and the horrors of the Holocaust."

Will Fern, used with permission
Source: Will Fern, used with permission

The problem is that the study is fundamentally not credible. Severe problems with it were serious and recognized in peer-reviewed scholarship as early as 1975:

  • It was a tiny study. You should rarely–if ever– take any conclusions derived from a social psych study with under 100 people too seriously. This one had 21. (not that you should take seriously one with even 100 or more, that depends on other aspects of scientific quality; but you certainly should not take seriously one with 21).
  • The “results” were most likely role-playing and faking, rather than genuine.
  •  Zimbardo’s descriptions of the study’s procedures have changed over the years and are, sometimes, disconfirmed by the publicly available information.

In this context, that a nearly complete failure to replicate was published 30+ years later should not have been particularly surprising. 

The study has been used for decades as a gripping introduction to the Amazing Wonders of Scientific Psychology, and to buttress claims about the alleged "Power of Situations" to make people into monsters or passive accomplices in their own oppression. It has been cited by eminent scientists as providing deep insights into everything from real-world prisons to the Abu Ghraib torture scandals.

Zimbardo himself has received numerous awards and accolades and has parlayed the study into fame and fortune.

At best, it is not credible. I have not taught it in my introductory social psychology classes for the last 20 years. And I am not alone. 

Source: Bitmoji

Ben Blum called it a fraud. I do not know if the study is an outright fraud, but I lack the words to describe how much it has been oversold. My overwhelmingly liberal colleagues generally despise Trump, in part, for his lies and exaggerations. 

But social psychology has been purveying fake news and alternative facts before those were even things. We need to stop. The Stanford Prison Experiment should be removed from the undergraduate curriculum.

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Next in this series: "Yes, You Can Infer Causation from Correlation" (It is hard, but yes, sometimes).