Billed as both entertainment and serious
research, the BBC program The Experiment attempts to recreate aspects of
a 1971 psychology study by Stanford University researcher Philip Zimbardo. In
the original study, volunteers were asked to assume the role of either prisoner
or prison guard, and were placed together in a simulated jail. The acting guards
were so brutal to the prisoners that a shocked Zimbardo abandoned the
experiment and said that it should never be repeated. It is now seen as an
important demonstration of how social circumstances can make people conform to
But whereas the Stanford guards bullied the
prisoners and forced them to clean toilets with their bare hands, their British
counterparts tried to befriend the prisoners and even agreed to reorganize the
prison as a commune. An edited version of the 10-day trial, held last December
at a London television studio, will be shown in four one-hour programs
beginning this week.
"This has been a ground-breaking
collaboration between academia and the media," says Alex Haslam, a
psychologist at Exeter University who planned the experiment with Steve
Reicher, a researcher at the University of St Andrews and joint editor of the British
Journal of Social Psychology. "It is not a media creation on which
psychologists were invited to comment. The guiding principle for us and the BBC
was always the science."
Others warn, however, that it is difficult
to compare the two studies directly, as behavioral trials are hard to
replicate. The television cameras will also have had "an immediate
constraint on what people do", says Donald Laming, a psychologist at the
University of Cambridge. Zimbardo, still at Stanford University, could not be
reached for comment.
For The Experiment, 15 male
volunteers were recruited through newspaper adverts, and divided into 6 guards
and 9 prisoners. The prisoners shared cramped cells and carried out chores,
whereas the guards enjoyed better food and separate rooms and were given
limited powers over their charges. As well as observing and recording the behavior
of the volunteers, Haslam and Reicher asked them to complete psychometric tests
and analyzed their saliva for the stress hormone cortisol.
It soon became clear that the guards were
unable to organize themselves. "There was a lack of a common social
identity, no leadership and they didn't even develop a simple shift
pattern," says Reicher. The guards showed more psychological stress than
Haslam says that he welcomed the chance to
challenge the Stanford results, and claims that the guards who behaved as
tyrants in the original experiment did so only because they were encouraged to.