The literature (p.93-94) paralleling conspiracy theory culture with the social dynamics of religious cults is starting to accumulate. In the post-factual world, there has been an explosion in the amount of research and commentary surrounding the psychological and sociological implications of conspiracy-mongering political sects such as the alt-right and QAnon. Outside of the grand edicts of Alex Jones being profane (non-spiritual in nature), there is another notable difference between the microcosm of conspiracy land and a religious cult; commitment costs.
In theory, a fan of conspiracy theory media can participate in this sphere without paying a dime (outside of the cost of electricity and monthly bills for internet access). Sure, our good friend Alex might be slinging some bogus supplements, but there is no requirement to purchase any Infowars products. Anyone with internet access can still access his web-based content. In contrast, a religious cult not only lays claim to all your earthly possessions and assets, the leader expects that future earnings are directed to the “church’s” coffers.
Beyond the differences in direct monetary costs, there are also drastic disparities in the nonmonetary costs of participation. In the conspiracy community, there is a large spectrum of various commitment preferences; no formal obligations to increase your level of commitment. The range goes from sitting consuming conspiracy media and frequenting conspiracy Reddit pages; even partaking in political activism predicated on conspiracy theories. Even if you are under the spell of the false prophet peddling tin-foil hat tomfoolery, there is still a degree of choice. To be a member of a religious cult, the costs of participation are extraordinarily high, and there is no gray area. A prospective member is fully obligated, or they are out. They must give up or share (their spouse or sexual partner), job, family, friends, hobbies, and contact with the external world. Alex Jones nor David Icke are not pressuring people to cut all ties with family to worship in their bugout bunker in rural South Dakota.
Essentially, conspiracy theories are opium dreams for the lost and disillusioned, like religious cults. But subscribing to conspiracy theories is the lazy man’s version of being a cult member. The commitment expectations and financial costs are much lower. Theoretically, a conspiracy theory adherent can live normally; hold down a square job, and raise a family. However, once they are off the clock, then their double life begins.
In the immediate aftermath of any tragedy, we often struggle to make sense of the situation. The senseless loss of life following a mass shooting is no exception. Various experts and media talking heads list all the potential antecedents that pushed a mentally unstable person to commit such an atrocity. The frequently cited causes of domestic mass murder include bellicose political rhetoric, violent song lyrics, psychiatric drugs, video games, disenfranchisement, mental health issues, and access to firearms (although the effect of gun control on preventing such events is inconclusive).
It would be rash to assume that any one of these purported preconditions for molding a mass murder is the sole reason for these tragedies. It is more likely that various environmental, genetic, and social factors drive a person to perpetrate such heinous acts. One potential cause of violence that often gets overlooked; is media coverage of such incidents .
Even when we take a cursory view of the incentives of media outlets, they are not going to take any responsibility for inspiring new school shooters and other varieties of a deranged shooter. After all, they are the mouthpiece for all the experts touting the evils of Marilyn Manson (I apologize for the dated reference), political extremism, and guns. Fixating on these gruesome stories and participating in conspiratorial conjecture about the impetus was for a demented young man to kill innocent people. Sadly, negativity sells, making it lucrative for business. Human beings are plagued by what is known as the negativity bias; we are more apt to engage with articles or news programming that has a negative tone. News outlets lay into this bias by exaggerating the severity of negative news. Validated by the fact that fifty percent (p.5) of news coverage features stories on crime. Media companies have a lot to gain from obsessively presenting all the gory updates on the Uvalde massacre. Business is good when you have audience captivity by the horror and depravity of a madman.
At its core, the dynamics of how media outlets cover mass shootings is a Prisoner’s Dilemma. The media companies act in their self-interest by bombarding us with all the horrific details of these mass killing events. This is done so with little consideration for the ethical consequence of how the story is framed. Typically, there is more coverage of the perpetrator than on the heroes who intervened and stopped the killing spree or even the victims (p.22). The tight focus on the gunman aggrandizes the image of the killer. In the mind of narcissistic (p.16) or otherwise mentally unstable people, they become the protagonist in the story of a folk anti-hero. The previous mass shooter serves as a template for how to quickly gain notoriety. In the canonical literature, there is a model known as the contagion effect, where essentially publicized shootings beget more publicized shootings. We begin to see copycat shooters. A 1999 study found that “.. of 83 would-be mass killers or assassins, who noted that evidence in their belongings or writings indicated that 38% of them emulated previous killers…”(p.24). A 2013 study, found a positive correlation between tweets about mass shootings and the likelihood of another one occurring (p.27). The shooters end up “defecting” by orchestrating and executing a shooting event, believing they are acting in their self-interest by indulging their angst and narcissism.
The suboptimal results in this situation would be the victims of the shooting. They are merely collateral damage in the pursuits of media outlets and mass shooters. Truly this mutual defection is the story of excesses. Whether it be improperly channeled rage, vanity, and narcissism or profit and callous political opportunism , innocent people had to die to achieve these ends.
1.) The suggestion that the media companies bare some responsibility for mass shootings is not an indictment of capitalism or freedom of the press. This presents an ironic fact; news outlets blame many distal factors for shootings; it never occurs to them to look in the mirror. Especially considering that most mass murders have proclivities towards narcissism.
2.) The incentives structure of media outlets may extend beyond the profit-loss mechanism, as they are generally ideologically driven. Many of the news channels and publications of esteem are politically left-wing, meaning they may also have anti-gun agenda. In effect; driving the obsessive coverage of gun violence.
Most of us that have a rudimentary understanding of economics, are familiar with the concept of the Law of Diminishing Returns. It is quite evident that this premise is unquestionably applicable to physical goods. Does this enduring economic law also apply to intangible commodities? It is salient once a person has exhausted the optimal quantity of solid objects. This is conspicuous in the disutility of engaging in hoarding behavior. While the optimum number of chairs a person should furnish their home with is debatable and depend on several factors, it is obvious once a person has amassed too many. Once an individual has so many chairs that it makes restricts accessibility to certain rooms in the house, becomes a fire hazard, or the homeowner can no longer contain all of the objects they own within the confines of the physical structure of their house- then it is problematic. Then rightward shift from the equilibrium point is universally expressed. There is no foreseeable value in obtaining more or maintaining your current collection of chairs. The assessment of whether you have too many chairs is no longer a matter of aesthetic preferences, but a matter of physical limitations. It is easy to determine once we obtained too many physical goods.
The saturation point is much more difficult to answer when about intangible goods (human capital, intellectual property, etc.). However, it could be argued that the Law of Diminishing does apply to human capital. The ultimate marketplace for human capital is the job market. Often we hear the term “saturation” be used to describe the labor market. Several factors can contribute to the overabundance of human capital available to employers. Periods of high unemployment leave firms with the ability to hire, a large pool of applicants to choose from. The saturation could be referring to a glut of similar skill sets or credentials. If history majors are a dime a dozen, but math majors are hard to come by, who is going to stand out in the job market? If everyone has basic Microsoft office skills, but there is one candidate in the resume heap that has an advanced certificate in Excel, needless to say, this will catch the eye of any hiring manager or human resources representative.
Degrees and certificates are not so much human capital as documentation of skills and formal education. Couldn’t the soaking point of specific forms of human capital also be relevant to soft skills? Well, why not? If can be applied to credential and soft skills then it must apply to more innate qualities. Such as personality types. Pre-employment personality tests not only qualify if a candidate is a good match for a specific job role but also help to bring more balance to team dynamics.
Going beyond even the job market or potential job prospects, human capital is integral in determining an individual’s overall trajectory in life. While other factors such as opportunity, motivation, and timing have a lot to do with success. Without the proper skills, most people will not rise above a certain point of attainment. One of the most coveted, but arguably overrated attributes in the panoply of human capital is general intelligence. General intelligence can only get a person so far. There is no one single factor that leads a person to success, but rather a multitude of different variables. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole certain applies. Providing some validation of Scott Adams’s postulations regarding complementary skills. No one needs to a virtuoso, but it is better to be reasonably good at many related skills than to fully master one. General intelligence is the archetypal example of being a master of one domain. We all have heard the platitude “… jack of all trades, master of none…” so frequently that it is deeply ingrained in our subconscious. However, this old saying has little applicability to the real world. It isn’t the smartest or the most diligent among us that succeed. Then again, the village idiot and the local ne’er-do-well burnout aren’t the ones rising to the top either.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (2008) presents an intriguing example of why general intelligence alone will not ensure success. Gladwell details the near-tragic trials and tribulations of Christopher Langan. A man who is a bona fide genius. Despite his expansive and impressive intellect he never had the opportunity to thrive as a universally praised academic. Langan boosted an IQ of 195 shadowing the IQ of Albert Einstein forty-five points (p.70). As impressive as it sounds to have an IQ of 195, there is one important point to remember. A veteran scientist with an IQ of 130 is equally as likely as a colleague with an IQ of 180 to win a Nobel Prize (p.80). Meaning that Lagan’s intelligence while awe-inspiring could even be viewed as being superfluous. If a person with an IQ thirty points lower than Langan can be a Nobel laureate what value does the extra IQ points effectively bring to the table?
Despite Langan’s intimidating intellect he failed to even obtain an undergraduate degree. This was due to a string of unfortunate shifts in his vicissitudes. One notable incident transpired when he was enrolled at Montana State, he had car troubles and could not make his morning classes. He had a neighbor who offered to give him rides in the afternoon to school. Regardless of how much cajoled and begged the dean he was not allowed to change his class schedule and was forced to withdraw from his program (p.94-95). Langan’s foil must be Robert Oppenheimer who worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War II (p.97). Here was a man who as a student attempted to murder his tutored (p.98). Not only did he get away with it, but later on after he completed his graduate program he managed to get on the prestigious Manhattan Project. It is evident his past transgressions did not dampen his career in any way. What truly separates both these men from one another? Both men were exceptionally bright, but one man couldn’t even convince his dean to do something as innocuous as changing his class schedule. Another got away with attempted murder. The difference was that Oppenheimer had a greater degree of practical intelligence (p.101).
The comparison between these two men illustrates that not only is there a ceiling in the benefits of having high general intelligence. There are also limitations if the only skills you have are related to general intelligence. Without practical knowledge, a robust IQ is tantamount to be a weight. We all need the precepts requisite to tactfully navigate the world. In the absence of this scaffolding, our intelligence is of little use and only serves to weigh us down.
In terms of formulating effective rules, one needs to have a panoramic understanding of the potential consequences. Even the downstream outcomes are not easily foreseen. Providing some validation of F.A. Hayek’s notion of the Pretense of Knowledge. No one person, organization, or collection of governing institutions has all of the information required to plan for every scenario. Making it foolhardy to enact inflexible rules that operate as if the definite outcomes can be methodically calculated. Treading down the path of the socialist calculation debate is fruitless as the refutations on both sides of the aisle have already been exhausted. The fall of the Soviet Union alone should serve as a historical anecdote of the fallacy of planned economies.
It should be noted that information asymmetries and unforeseeable outcomes are a natural consequence of having limited information. Explaining phenomena such as cobra effects, because certain repercussions cannot be known until it is too late. These distorted outcomes as the result of flawed rules can happen on a much smaller scale than that of the national economy or a country’s legal system. Something as mundane as a birthdate cutoff to participate in youth hockey can spur some surprise inequities in the trajectory of young hockey players. This example springing from the pages of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers gives us some keen insights into the potential for implicit flaws in rule formulation. Gladwell details the observations of psychologist Roger Barnsley (p.22-23) upon perusing the program of the Canadian national youth hockey championship. Barnsley noticed that the majority of the players had birthdays ranging between January and March. Is it possible that there is a certain qualitative factor distinguishing children with birthdays earlier on in the year? If we examine the zodiac symbols of those born in January and February there are characteristics that are conducive to success. However, there is little scientific merit to astrology anyhow. Barnsley had another explanation for this discrepancy between Canadian Hockey players born in January versus July.
Barnsley astutely directs us towards the factor of birthday cutoffs for eligibility to play youth hockey in Canada. This fact was substantiated when Barnsley discovered that roughly 40 percent of all elite hockey players were born between January-March, 30 percent between April-June (p.23) Demonstrating the role of the individual player’s birthday in determining success. Having a January first cutoff, privileged prospective players born in the earlier months of the year (p.24). The main difference being that the boys born in earlier months were more physically mature. In turn, received more attention from the coaches lending this dynamic to an early delineation between talented and untalented players (p.25). Due to the difference in age eligibility cutoffs in American youth football and basketball leagues, they did not exhibit the same distortions in the distribution of talent (p.26). Engendering a Matthew Effect or what is otherwise known as an accumulative advantage. Adam Smith even points to the concept of accumulative advantage in The Wealth of Nations. Explaining how in a sense the poor pay the price for the poor decisions of their forefathers.
Many proponents of meritocratic social arrangements may scoff at the idea of making rules that are fair. However, if the rules are providing a lopsided advantage to one group, are the results truly the result of superior performance or the distortion created by the rules? Few would ever view the occurrence of instances of regulatory capture or rent-seeking as a triumph of free-market competition. Rather just the opposite, it is an example of interest groups bending the rules to suit their own needs. Careful consideration needs to be made in how we set and enforce rules to avoid distorted effects that handsomely benefit a few and harm a great many. Gladwell succinctly sums up this point very eloquently:
“Because we cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all group up and then we choose to write society don’t matter at all.” (p.33)
While variables such as luck, talent, ingenuity, and hard work can all have a role in success, we cannot forget that how the rules are written can also have an inseparable impact on outcomes. Even rules that are inadvertently written in a manner to favor one group over another without consideration of merit is a flawed rule. Marred by an unforeseeable blind spot that nevertheless has generated distorted outcomes. These outcomes are not truly the byproduct of talent or work ethic but by technicalities that create illusory perceptions of actual skill.
After watching the documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth V. Michelle Carter I came to a fairly superficial conclusion. I initially chose to watch this HBO mini-series for potential legal analysis. I plan to address those concerns in a later blog entry. Oddly, from a legal standpoint, this case is quite interesting. There wasn’t any previous case precedence in Massachusetts state history. Making this case one that explores uncharted waters. However, my observations are not about the legal facts of the case.
Conrad Roy III and Michelle Carter were two Massachusetts teens who had a highly toxic and co-dependent relationship. Both suffering from various forms of mental illness. Carter lived in a quasi-fantasyland. Blurring the line between romantic comedies and dramas with her relationship with Roy. Drawing parallels between their relationship and the ebbs-and-flows of numerous works of fiction. Even drifting down the perverse road of suicidal ideation. Hence, here aggressive attempts to coax Roy into killing himself. Carter almost took glee in the concept of the attention she would receive in the climatic event that Roy or Roy and herself had committed suicide. Her vision of being showered in attention was almost like a linear plot twist in play. The act of Roy killing himself was the divine Deus ex Machina to free him from the deepest depth of depression. Having the potential to satisfy the psychological pathology of both teens.
In one text message string, Carter details the romanticized depiction of the climatic end of Shakespeare’s Rome and Juliet. As we all, know both of the star-crossed teens end up dying in the end. Lying dead, right next to one another in the ultimate display of catharsis. Demonstrating to the quarreling families how petty their disputes truly were. It would be quite likely Carter saw some highly embellished similarities between the protagonists of the play and her relationship. Upon the documentary reviewing this string of text messages, my mind began to wander. I started to realize that the story of Romeo and Juliet if we strip all the emotional entrapment of romance is nothing more than an extended narrative detailing the Forbidden Fruit Effect. This phenomenon is also known as the Paradox of Temptation. Essentially, we desire what we cannot have.
This has economized instances of prohibited commodities. This principle is not confined merely to the illicit drug trade. During the cigar boom of the late-1990s and early 2000s, the U.S. demand for Cuban cigars skyrocket. To the extent that there was a major slump in quality. The one centralized tobacco producer for Cuba had to resort to using green tobacco and inferior quality control procedures to keep up with demand. It should be noted that the United States has had a trade embargo with Cuban since 1962. It’s hard to believe that much of the mystique of Cuban cigars to Americans isn’t influenced by them is a restricted product. We have seen a similar phenomenon with the legalization of recreational marijuana. What has been referred to as the “Green Rush”. A surge of sales for a product that has been legal and demonized in America for decades, that is now finally legal. To the naïve Cannabis user, the mystery behind its pharmacologic effects is enough of a draw to purchase Marijuana-related products. Would this romanticized image exist to the same capacity if Marijuana use was as ubiquitous as drinking beer? Most likely not. Most of the buzz and hype is levitating around pot because we have treated it as an unholy and deplorable vice for so long. Has only recently become fashionable (in the mainstream sense).
The story of Romeo and Juliet is if reduced to its most base level, a story about wanting what you can’t have. Due to the fact we steeped the narrative in a cloak of riveting romanticism, we forget that this isn’t purely a love store. Would Juliet be as appealing to Romeo if she was a member of a rival family? Couldn’t the same be said for Romeo? Granted, most of these pointed questions are a mix of a priori reasoning and loose conjecture. However, considering the flaws of human nature and the unfortunate fact we are attracted to what we can’t have. Analogous to a moth witlessly fly towards a flame. This seems to be an enduring characteristic of the human condition. Doesn’t matter whether it is two lustful teenagers in the Shakespearean-era or a 1920s Flapper enjoying an illicit gin-and-tonic. We want what we can’t have. Getting beyond the compelling drama of the vibrant and rebellious love affair between two teens, what are we left with? An engaging allegory fixated on desire. The drawbacks of pursuing everything we desire to possess.
The recent findings regarding the validity of the Stanford Prison Experiment have been disappointing. Even on a personal level. While the study was morally questionable it was one of my favorite studies. In college, I majored in psychology. I found myself particularly drawn to social psychology. Naturally, my social psychology textbook dedicated several pages to the Stanford Prison Experiment. Despite the litany of ethical questions and procedural constraints that have spawned from SPE and the infamous Milgram’s Experiment, the controversial studies have always been the most intriguing to me.
When I was younger often flippantly reducing the ethical considerations to mere inconveniences. As I have gotten older, I have begun to take the ethics of research more seriously. Veering away from a sterile utilitarian mentality to one that holds the rights of the subjects in high esteem. Needless to say, I had to reluctantly acquiesce the fact that one of the most interesting studies conducted in the history of psychological research was a fraud. In science when new fact-based developments come to surface we must except them tentatively until proven otherwise. Even when the facts do not comport with our interests or opinions.
Even though it is reasonable to suspect that the Stanford Prison Experiment was fabricated, are any of the results salvable? The results certainly are not scientifically valid nor can be generalized. That is a difficult question to answer. An exact replication of this study is out of the question. As the purveyor of the Prior Probability blog has mentioned in the comments section of part II, ethical constraints prohibit an exact replication. However, in the United Kingdom, an amended version of the study was conducted back in 2001. Typically referred to as the “BBC Prison Experiment“. This more ethically amenable study did not fully verify the results of Zimbardo’s 1971 study. In 2018, Zimbardo came back and criticized the UK experiment and cited a 1979 study that mirrored his results. Such back-peddling can only be met with incredulity considering the ample evidence that Zimbardo heavily manipulated the results of his 1971 “experiment”.
Philip Zimbardo’s desired results do dovetail to our initiative assumptions about authority. We have all heard the expression of being “drunk on power”. It was the great Lord Acton that once said:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority…
It is quite evident that an implied potential for abusing authority is embedded in the human psyche. The problem becomes determining whether this qualitative attribution is factual or illusory. To do so through scientific means is downright cumbersome. Attempts to quantify an inherently qualitative value judgment is difficult. However, there seems to be quite a bit of anecdotally/observational evidence that does point in the direction of Zimbardo’s findings. The unfortunate aspect of observations is that we cannot deduce the prime cause of the observed occurrence. It is possible that the root cause could be an unobservable variable or our observation is clouded by bias.
The instances of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison would appear to be observational evidence congenial to Zimbardo’s results. Per a 2012 paper written by Kristin Richardson, the situational context of the Abu Ghraib prison may explain the behavior of the guards. Suggesting that the fact that senior leadership was complicit in the controversy for fostering an environment where such human rights violations can take place (p.76-77). This lack of oversight being prevalent in other areas of interacting with prisoners of war such as interrogation. Richardson also cites what is known as the Thomas Theorem for addressing how the soldiers guarding the detainees at Abu Ghraib could resort to inhumane measures. This theorem asserts that reality is a mental construct and that reality is real because we believe it is (p.9). Leading to the assumption that the guards did lose a sense of consensus reality while in prison. Started to relax their moral precepts to accept the role of an uncompromisingly tough prison guard. Keeping potential terrorists in-check. Providing some qualitative confirmation about Zimbardo’s assumptions regarding the behavior of the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment.
Having an understanding of the human mind, I understand how powerful it is. It has the capability of making a delusion a reality. Reinforcing the observations asserted in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave thousands of years before the advent of neuroscience. People can get caught up in a fabricated reality. To not only believe they can get away with abusing prisoners but to believe they are justified. This distortion of reality being triggered by the context of the environment. That does not mean that reality is a complete construct. The fact that there is a consensus reality is a clue that not every aspect of experience is subjective. We merely interpret concrete reality through sensory input creating the spectrum of deviations. As intriguing as Richardson’s insights are they still do not provide us with any causal inferences. Due to ethical and methodological concerns, we may never be able to validate these observations scientifically.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is arguably one of the most famous studies in the discipline of social psychology. Mentioning the study by name generally evokes images of the darker side of the human condition. As you can see from my previous essay detailing the reported qualitative details of the study. Dr. Zimbardo’s controversial study garnered much attention to the ethical considerations of psychological research. While the study has been widely cited and profoundly influential in recent years it has come under fire. Back in 2018, journalist Ben Blum, published an expose scrutinizing the validity of Zimbardo’s work. Exposing major methodological flaws that most likely compromised the results. Even inferring that Zimbardo attempted to manipulate variables to influence the results.
Could one of psychology’s most well known and influential studies be completely invalid? Contrived and orchestrated like a school play? Such a determination veers into murky waters. It can be said confidentially that Zimbarado’s methods were flawed From the standpoint of methodology, the ethical considerations are a whole other subject. When applying the scientific method to research it is imperative to control for any confounding variables. This is the only way to confirm that the results are being impacted by the variables being manipulated by the experimenter. Otherwise, the results fall victim to the third variable problem. Making it impossible to derive causation from the results of the study. At the very least Zimbardo was derelict in regards to preventing outside factors from contaminating the results.
From a methodologically the Stanford Prison Experiment suffers from poor data collect, faulty participant selection, and the demand characteristics of the study.
Poor Data Collection:
Anyone who has read Zimbardo’s 1971 paper can tell you two characteristics are striking. The first being the unorthodox composition of the paper. The second being the paucity of hard data. The details of the paper are almost entirely qualitative. Making the term experiment an unfitting title for the study. French researcher Thibault Le Texier would most likely agree. In his paper, Debunking The Stanford Prison Experiment, he highlights many of the methodological flaws in the study. His research reveals that only 15% of the total “experiment” was recorded. “6 hr of video and 15 hr
of audio” out of the total 150 hours devoted to the experiment. No data was collected during day three of the study (p.12). Such gaps in data collection can only put the results of the study in question. Without sufficient data, the researchers are merely speculating. Presenting speculation as scientific findings are intellectually dishonest and problematic.
A touchstone of scientific inquiry is the ability to control for confounding variables. Extraneous variables that influence attributes being studied and swaying the results. How do we know that the results of Zimbardo’s study were truly due to the situational conditions of being granted unfettered authority over other people? Unfortunately, we cannot. Per Le Texier’s archival research Zimbardo “collected very little personal information about the participants”(p.12). This is profoundly problematic if we are expected to draw causal results from this study. Zimbardo neglecting to collect adequate background information on the subjects generates more questions than answers. The cruel behavior of the guards may have been influenced by factors other than the situation. For example personality traits, political beliefs, religious convictions, etc. Not collecting such preliminary data not only skews the results but is just plain sloppy. Any experienced researcher should have known better to be so cavalier.
It has also come to surface that Zimbardo did not collect any data from actual prisons. Again, another fault in data collection that prevents these findings from being generalized. Without data from prisons, it is difficult to not only have an accurate understanding of typical behavior in these environments, but nothing to compare the results. Yes, you could utilize behavior before the experimental conditions as a baseline. However, this does little if you are seeking to make universal claims about the behavioral dynamics of prisons. In the absence of this information how can really can’t. The results could be atypical for the average prison.
The experiment suffered from one fatal error from the very beginning that could have impacted the results. Zimbardo placed an advertisement in the local paper requesting volunteers for a prisonexperiment (p.2). Even providing the detail of the study is a “prison” experiment in the process of soliciting participants allows extraneous variables to creep in. Contaminating the results. Individuals who may be interested in a prison study may skew towards people with a specific personality type, ideological convictions, or other proclivities. Thereby generating an applicant pool that may be predisposed towards authoritarian tendencies. As unlikely as this sounds considering we are talking about a group of college kids in the 1970’s California, it cannot be ruled out. It cannot be ruled out because Zimbardo failed to shield the study from self-selection. This concern would even be a talking point if Zimbardo had merely request for participants for a study versus a “prison study”.
Speaking of an experiment taking place in a prestigious university in the 1970’s California, that is a really specific and unique time and place. Bringing to light another question, the generalization of participants. Generally, when you select subjects for a study, you want the pool of applicants to be as diverse as possible. Why? More diversity greatly reduces the likelihood of sampling error. The general population of the United States is extremely diverse. To reflect this, you need a diverse pool of participants to randomly select from. Otherwise, you run the risk of potentially selecting subjects that maybe all have similar characteristics that do not reflect the overall population. The greater the number and diversity of subjects any peculiarities tend to washout, averaging results that can be generalized. Would a bunch of college students presumably attending Stanford be a good representation of the American population? By any metric or measure that would be a resounding no!
Demand Characteristics in an experiment are “ques” that subconsciously influence the behavior of the subjects. For example, knowing the experimenter’s expectations or desired results impacting participant behavior. Once again, Zimbardo was derelict in his duty as a researcher to avoid such issues. Zimbardo expressed what his expected and desired outcomes were for the experiment to the guards during orientation (p.5). The guards also expressed feeling as if they were being “watched and filmed” (p.8). It is quite evident that when feel as if we are being observed we are more apt to behave differently. Especially when the lead experimenter has already expressed his opinions about the potential results. This fact is solidified in the testimony of Guard #1:
He wrote to Zimbardo, 3 months after the experiment, “I was always acting [. .] I
was always very conscious of the responsibility involved in the guards’ and the experimenters’ positions; I mentioned this to various people at various times, including to you during the debriefing” (Guard 1, 1971b). He wrote to him again, 3 months later,
I consciously felt that for the experiment to be at all useful ‘guards’ had to act something like guards.
[. . .] I felt that the experiment was important and my being ‘guard-like’ was part of finding out how people react to real oppression. (Guard 1,1972, p. 5)
(Le Texier, 2019, p. 8)
Unfortunately, it is speculated that to a certain extent the study was scripted and fabricated. Extends beyond the concerns of demand characteristics. Le Texier found that Zimbardo had prewritten conclusions for the study (p.13). There is ample evidence that the experimenters had conditioned the prisoners and guards in how to behave (p.10). Explaining to the participants how to behave in the context of the experiment. Zimbardo and the other researchers claim that the cruel behavior of the guards to have occurred organically is beyond spurious. Especially when the subjects were being coached. To make matters worse, the experiments even played an active role in the experiment. Removing themselves from the role of impartial observers. The role of warden was played by one of Zimbardo’s experimenters.
The Stanford Prison Experiment was a study conducted on August 14th through 20th of 1971 by Philip Zimbardo, Craig Haney, W. Curtis Banks, and David Jaffe. The lead researcher Zimbardo embarked upon this study to examine how situational factors and authority could lead to normal people engaging in abhorrent behavior. The researchers placed an advertisement in the local paper looking for volunteers for the experiment. The researchers performed psychological evaluations to make sure that the participants were healthy and not suffering from previous mental conditions. Then they were arrested by actual Palo Alto police officers. Underwent standard booking procedures and were taken to a basement on the Stanford campus. Out of the eighteen participants nine were assigned to be guards and the other nine were prisoners. The roles were randomly assigned by a coin toss.
The guards stripped the prisoners naked and sprayed them down with delousing spray. The prisoners were then dressed in jumpsuits (without undergarments) and provided nylon stockings to wear on their heads to mimic the practice of head-shaving in prisons. Each prisoner was assigned a number and was only referred to by their number. The guards periodically took counts on the faux-inmates. The inmates went to the bathroom in buckets and were escorted by the guards to the makeshift facilities. Generally with a bag over their heads. The subjects that were assigned to the role of guards purportedly developed their own rules for governing the mock prison. These “guard” devised parameters included punishments such as limitations on food, solitary confinement, and push-ups. As time went on the severity of guard sanction punishments increased drastically. Even include instances of sexual humiliation ranging from forcing the prisoners to remove their clothes to even forcing them to simulate sodomy. Such displays of cruelty were lead by the sadistic ring-leader David Eshelman, referred to by the prisoners as “John Wayne”.
Due to the concern about the well being of the subjects Zimbardo cut the experiment short. It was originally planned to run for two weeks and was ended after six days. By day five one of the prisoners had developed a rash that was assumed to be psychosomatic. Engendered by the psychological distress (p.14) Instanced of prisoners who refused to eat being force feed by guards. Then there was the story of prisoner 819.
The only prisoner who did not want to speak to the priest was prisoner
#819 who was feeling sick and had refused to eat…While talking to us he broke down and began to cry hysterically, ..While I was doing this one of the guards lined up all of the prisoners and had them chant aloud.
As soon as I realized that #819 was hearing all this, I raced into the room where I had left him, and what I found(66)was a boy crying hysterically while in the background his fellow prisoners were yelling and chanting that he was a bad prisoner…
“OK, let’s leave.” Through his tears, he said to me, “No, I can’t leave.” He could not leave because the others had labeled him a bad prisoner. Even though he was feeling sick, he was willing to go back into that prison to prove that he was not a bad
prisoner. (Zimbardo, Haney, Banks & Jaffe. 1971. P. 12.)