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.