Originally posted June 7, 2018
Here is an excerpt:
Somehow, neither Prescott’s letter nor the failed replication nor the numerous academic critiques have so far lessened the grip of Zimbardo’s tale on the public imagination. The appeal of the Stanford prison experiment seems to go deeper than its scientific validity, perhaps because it tells us a story about ourselves that we desperately want to believe: that we, as individuals, cannot really be held accountable for the sometimes reprehensible things we do. As troubling as it might seem to accept Zimbardo’s fallen vision of human nature, it is also profoundly liberating. It means we’re off the hook. Our actions are determined by circumstance. Our fallibility is situational. Just as the Gospel promised to absolve us of our sins if we would only believe, the SPE offered a form of redemption tailor-made for a scientific era, and we embraced it.
For psychology professors, the Stanford prison experiment is a reliable crowd-pleaser, typically presented with lots of vividly disturbing video footage. In introductory psychology lecture halls, often filled with students from other majors, the counterintuitive assertion that students’ own belief in their inherent goodness is flatly wrong offers dramatic proof of psychology’s ability to teach them new and surprising things about themselves. Some intro psych professors I spoke to felt that it helped instill the understanding that those who do bad things are not necessarily bad people. Others pointed to the importance of teaching students in our unusually individualistic culture that their actions are profoundly influenced by external factors.
But if Zimbardo’s work was so profoundly unscientific, how can we trust the stories it claims to tell? Many other studies, such as Soloman Asch’s famous experiment demonstrating that people will ignore the evidence of their own eyes in conforming to group judgments about line lengths, illustrate the profound effect our environments can have on us. The far more methodologically sound — but still controversial — Milgram experiment demonstrates how prone we are to obedience in certain settings. What is unique, and uniquely compelling, about Zimbardo’s narrative of the Stanford prison experiment is its suggestion that all it takes to make us enthusiastic sadists is a jumpsuit, a billy club, and the green light to dominate our fellow human beings.
The article is here.