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Infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment Revisited

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 particular roles.

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 the prisoners.

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.