Mike tells Sarah the complicated story of an over-simplified study. Digressions include Tonya Harding, "The Meg" and Kitty Genovese. The Milgram obedience studies and the "broken windows" theory of policing receive bonus debunkings.
Thanks to Thibault Le Texier for helping us with this episode! Here's his book, "The History of a Lie," and the English-language summary, "Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment."
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Sarah: I want to know about prisons and so rather than locking a bunch of guys in my basement, I just read about prisons.
Sarah: Welcome to You’re Wrong About, the show where we teach you how to ruin all of your teacher’s poorly thought out arguments.
Mike: That is very broad and very good.
Sarah: Thank you. Well, I think it applies specifically well to easily debunkable sociological phenomena of mid sanctuary America.
Mike: The term that I keep coming across in the literature is self debunking.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Marshall and I'm working on a book about the satanic panic.
Mike: And if you'd like to support the show and hear cute bonus episodes about season four of The Crown among other things. You can support us on Patreon at patreon.com/youre wrong about.
Mike: And today we are talking about the Stanford Prison Experiment.
Sarah: I’m so excited. You have no idea.
Mike: Oh my God. Me too.
Sarah: This is the lowest hanging fruit.
Mike: I know.
Sarah: That we have plucked in a while. Like it was hanging there, just this perfect thing. It's like it's this thing that people cite all the time when they want to make a facile case for why humans are terrible and you should just give up on caring about humans or expecting prosocial behavior. And it just seems like the kind of thing that it is so easily debunked.
Mike: It is self-raising debunking. I was going to do a whole thing where I was going to spend like 20 or 30 minutes walking you through the study step-by-step and really like convincing you that the study was real and then I was going to have like, boom, a twist.
Sarah: Yeah, you love fucking with me don’t you?
Mike: I know, I do but then I realized you cannot describe this study without getting into the ways in which it is bullshit. But this is also a weird debunking because like what actually happened in the Stanford Prison Experiment is actually mostly true. We're going to get into the various like documents that were faked and stuff that didn't hold up over time. But in general, everything you've heard about what actually happened in a Stanford basement in August of 1971, that occurred, where the debunking comes in is how to interpret what occurred.
Sarah: Right! This is like Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. It's like everything you saw. It's like, we're not adding anything new to that. It's like, come take my hand. Let's look at it again.
Mike: So Sarah, tell me what you know about the Stanford Prison Experiment. What happened?
Sarah: My basic understanding of it is that there was a study at Stanford by a guy named Zimbardo because a kick ass name.
Mike: Yes, Phil Zimbardo.
Sarah: Great name, Phil. And basically my understanding of it is that the study shows volunteers I believe from the student body to take on the rules of inmates and guards in a mock prison and half of them were guards and half were inmates. And as the study progressed, the guards began to abuse the inmates. And I believe this was of their own free will and then also that the study was called off early because the situation deteriorated so quickly.
Mike: Yes, it's the story, I think one of the things that has made the story so appealing is this twist in it that like the academics themselves couldn't have predicted how severe it would get.
Sarah: Yeah, it's like the Russian sleep experiment, creepy pasta. It's like, don't try to see the face of God young man.
Mike: One of the main beefs with the Stanford Prison Experiment is how much of a standard in psychology textbooks it is. So one of the first things I did was I found a bunch of textbooks online and I looked at the way that they describe the study.
Sarah: Mmmm, oh I’m so excited for this. This is God, textbook analysis, Mike, this is wonderful.
Mike: So this is an excerpt from a textbook called Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior from 2009. This is I think, emblematic of the way that this study is described, it's described in very sort of cinematic terms. The prison had become a living hell, hidden behind their mirrored sunglasses. The guards asserted their total authority over the prisoners. They made the prisoners ask permission to do virtually anything, including going to the toilet. The guards conducted roll calls in the middle of the night to assert their power and disrupt the prisoners’ sleep. They forced the prisoners to do push ups sometimes with their foot pushing down on the prisoners back. For their part the prisoners became increasingly passive and depressed. They hated the guards but were powerless against them. After a few days, one prisoner cracked emotionally. But this prison was not in some brutal dictatorship. Instead, the prison was in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University and the guards and prisoners were college students who had volunteered for a study of prison life.
Sarah: Leland Stanford's own university. You can tell from that description why this caught on the way that it did. It’s just like it's so you're right, it’s cinematic. And it's like, it just speaks to how textbooks are like magazines in some ways, I guess, and need to have like a cool story with a great hook.
Mike: Yes, to be fair. I looked at five different textbooks, kind of at random, and all of them did mention weaknesses in the study. So there were none of them that just presented it as like Bible facts and then moved on. All of them said that there were ethical issues. There were sort of methodological issues, but also they mentioned it sort of after these cinematic descriptions of the study. I actually majored in psychology and I remember we talked about the Stanford prison study and we did talk in detail about the weaknesses, but it was always framed as this is a big and influential and important study. And it's not perfect.
Sarah: Right, I feel like one of the problems that you're encountering with that is that like, if the study was so influential and if it influenced our ideas about psychology into from then until now, then to try and throw it out. I feel like there's this fear of like, well, does that invalidate all this other stuff that we've allowed to influence our culture? And it's like, yeah, maybe.
Mike: So before we get into the debunking and Zimbardo and all of the other stuff that we're going to talk about, I think we should just establish the elements of the story of the Stanford Prison Experiment that have really gotten entrenched. There's basically three components that are central to the way that the experiment is talked about and came up frequently in all of the textbooks that I looked up. The first is that all of the participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment were normal. So this is what Zimbardo says in his 2008 book, the Lucifer Effect, he says “Human nature can be transformed within certain powerful social settings in ways as dramatic as the chemical transformation in the captivating fable of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Another thing that we've sort of forgotten now is that in 1971 when the study was taking place, there was a huge debate within psychology between sort of the personality explains everything people and the situation explains everything people. And this was one of the foundational debates in psychology when this study was designed.
Sarah: I find this so interesting because it's like, why would we waste so much time arguing pointlessly between two extreme positions neither of which are true. Is it A or is it B? It can't be both.
Mike: I mean, any of these foundational debates in any field of science are always so absurd. Like we do this dumb thing with the nature versus nurture thing. Every time some big new study comes out, we're like, it's nature, no it’s nurture when, like it's very obviously a combination of the two.
Sarah: Everything is everything.
Mike: Yes, so the second major component of the myth of the Stanford Prison Experiment that travels is that the guards were given no instructions. So another piece of context that is really important at this time is that in 1961, Milgram had done his famous obedience experiments. You're familiar with these right?
Sarah: Yeah, the obedience experiments were done I believe in New Haven. People were brought in and told that they were part of a study that was trying to figure out whether people would learn information and would memorize things better. If they were given an electric shock when they made mistakes and no one was ever actually shocking anyone, but the people thought that they were shocking a real person. And what the study is interpreted as having determined is that people are all too willing to continue administering shocks to people until they appear to have died.
Mike: Yeah, the story that travels from the Milgram experiments is that people will do almost anything if they're told to do so by a credible authority. Of course, in reality, it wasn't as uniform as that, a lot of people actually didn't continue with the shocks and there's also evidence that people didn't actually think that it was real. And they were like deeply aware that the whole thing was fake and that nobody was actually being killed because that would be bananas. But what's interesting about the Milgram studies is, you know, they were a huge bombshell when they came out and what America took from them was that people will do horrifying things if they are given orders. And what Zimbardo did with the Stanford Prison Experiment is say they will do horrible things even if they're not given orders. Zimbardo's whole thing was you put people in uniforms, you shave their heads, you give the guards mirrored sunglasses, all of these sort of kind of minor seeming or superficial trappings of a system and the guards on their own started treating the prisoners horribly.
Sarah: This is what I really want to know Mike, why were we so invested in studies that just proved people were horrible?
Mike: Well, honestly this is something I learned in the research for this episode. Was it psychology was in the middle of kind of an existential crisis? Part of it was that, you know, for most of its history, it had been seen as an individual practice, right? It's Freud, it's young, it's people sitting on a couch, it's mostly rich people describing their problems and figuring out like, oh your mom didn't hug you, or she hugged you too much, or whatever.
Sarah: It is Freud offering you a line of blow and talking about your dreams.
Mike: Right, and then the Holocaust happens. There was this rush to explain what happened. How did an entire country go along with these absolutely horrific acts?
Sarah: I love how we as America have also committed horrific acts during war and it's like, we don't have to look into that at all though, it’s whatever, it's fine.
Mike: There's also, I mean, this doesn't really come up in the literature, but this is like a Michael Hobbs theory. That the 1960s were also a time of white flight. And there was this rush to construct cities, especially the quote unquote inner city with all of the baggage that comes with it as sort of fundamentally violent. Right? This is the time when we got the myth of kitty Genovese. This is the time when we're sort of constructing this myth of the psychopath. There was this rush to imagine human beings that had no empathy.
Sarah: So this is, I'm just going to delve into a little cul-de-sac personal theory for a second here.
Mike: Do it.
Sarah: Okay, Hervey Cleckley is the mask of sanity, the foundational text and modern psychopaths studies comes out in 1946. Why would Americans want to metabolize? Individual human's ability to commit horrible deeds and perhaps kill lots of lots of people. Why would we want to create a second category of the human? So we don't have to accept that regular people can also murder lots of other human beings and then come home and raise children. Any pot roast, hard to say lets continue.
Mike: So the third component of the myth that's really important was that the Stanford Prison Experiment helps explain historical events. So another precursor to the study in 1971 was Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Sarah: I read this in like my first grade school class, and I remember really liking it, kind of try and remember what it was saying.
Mike: Yes, please do.
Sarah: What the term banality of evil refers to is the concept that outcomes of tremendous evil can be carried out by a bunch of bureaucrats who see themselves as bureaucrats and not as murderers.
Mike: Right! So this is a quote from Eichmann in Jerusalem. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic that they were and still are terrifyingly normal. This normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together. It implied that this new type of criminal commits his crime under circumstances that make it well not impossible for him to know or feel that he is doing wrong.” So this is the central banality of evil explanation that it's like a bunch of dudes in suits behind typewriters doing what their bosses tell them in the way that we all do in our jobs, without really thinking about how horrific the acts are right underneath them.
And there's quite a bit of debate over whether Hannah Arendt aren't actually believed this. The book itself contains like much more nuanced descriptions, but the fact that this quote appears in Philip Zimbardo’s book, I think is telling because regardless of what her actual book says. This is the idea that most people took away from it. Both Zimbardo and Milgram mentioned the Holocaust constantly throughout their studies. There's like a darkly hilarious passage in the original article where Zimbardo publishes the Stanford Prison Experiment, where he's talking about how the guards, sort of without direction, started making the prisoners do push ups. And then in the next paragraph, he's like, you know, at Auschwitz, the Nazis made the Jews do pushups and you're like.
Sarah: Come on dude.
Mike: I don't know man.
Sarah: You’re a guy at Stanford. You haven't replicated one of the most incomprehensible atrocities in human history, but like a nice try.
Mike: It just felt to me like some random college freshmen being like, you know, who else was a vegetarian, but this is something that Zimbardo courted explicitly. He also, you know, of course he extends his findings to sort of real prisons, like this says so much about prisons and its the uniforms and its shaving heads, et cetera. He also extends the metaphor of institutions far beyond even like Auschwitz and prisons like the things that it kind of sorta is relevant to. This is what he says in his original study. “The physical institution of prison is, but a concrete and steel metaphor for the existence of more pervasive, albeit less obvious prisons of the mind that all of us daily create, populate and perpetuate.”
Mike: I know he says, uh, yeah. “The social convention of marriage, as one example becomes for many couples, a state of imprisonment in which one partner agrees to be a prisoner or guard. “
Sarah: You unbelievable Pop-over!
Mike: It’s like put the vape down, Phil, just relax. The sort of the reason I'm bringing up all of these myths before we get to the sort of the main content of this episode is because all of these myths form literally days after the experiment happens. He did this study in August of 1971. He, he invites TV reporters to film the study. He sends out a press release on the second day of the study, like he's courting press attention from literally minute one.
Mike: The study ends on August 20th. On August 21st, there's a prisoner uprising at San Quentin in which a black political prisoner named George Jackson is killed. And it's a huge story. And three weeks later is the Attica uprising in New York, which is partly in response to George Jackson being killed in San Quentin. So basically the minute that Zimbardo is done doing his study, we are engaged in a month long nationwide debate over prison conditions. Sarah: That is interesting.
Mike: In October of 1971, Congress holds all these hearings about Attica and about prison conditions and they asked Zimbardo to appear and testify.
Sarah: What? They’re like, hey, you hang out with a bunch of guys one time, come talk about the very real conditions of this very real prison.
Mike: And then in November, one month later, there's a 20 minute prime time special on NBC, exclusively dedicated to the Stanford Prison Experiment.
Sarah: God, academia used to be different.
Mike: I know, man. And then this is incredible. The academic study of Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo doesn't get his shit together and get all the data and, you know, get through peer review and everything until 1973.
Sarah: That's a man after my own heart.
Mike: I know.
Sarah: I like to put it in a drawer and then he gets really into wind surfing.
Mike: But so what that does is it creates this two year long period where the myth of the Stanford Prison Experiment is able to metastasize.
Mike: Without any rigorous peer review data about the study.
Sarah: So let's not give people ideas, but apparently you can start a study, have a bunch of press about what you think the results are gonna be and then neglect to actually complete it for years.
Mike: The myth is already out in the wild while this dumb academic paper was tying its shoes.
Sarah: In conclusion, people are bad and marriage is worse.
Sarah: Thank you for reading my study.
Mike: So uh now we are going to talk a little bit about Phil Zimbardo.
Sarah:Cool, I’m excited.
Mike: I am going to read you something and you have to tell me where you think it is from. Sarah: Ok.
Mike: In 1969, Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by vandals within 10 minutes. The first to arrive was a family, father, mother and young son who removed the radiator and battery. Within 24 hours virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began, windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult vandals were well dressed, apparently clean cut whites.
Mike: The car in Palo Alto by contrast sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashes part of it with a sledge hammer, soon passersby were joining in and within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the vandals appeared to be primarily respectable whites. Where do you think this is from? Sarah: Time Magazine?
Mike: It is from The Atlantic, from the 1982 article that kicked off the broken windows policing trend.
Mike: Yes, so he is the god father of not one but two trash concepts that have taken over American life.
Sarah: Its so stupid, its like ok ,so you put one car in one place on one day and one car in another place on one day and then your wrote down what happend and like how many other cars were there.
Sarah: Like how much has this been massaged by you and then by the reporter into something that sounds like compelling to readers. It's a cool magazine lead, I don't find it trustworthy because for one thing they share lack of detail.
Mike: Totally. And first of all the Bronx stuff there is no evidence for this by the way but it sounds fucking fake to me. The idea that you park a car with its hood up with nothing else wrong with it and literally within minutes people are like stripping it for parts. In another article Zimbardo describes they were urinating on the car.
Sarah: It’s interesting that this is middle of the day and you just imagine like one like white guy in a suit walking up and he’s like ah I’m going to smash this car I think.
Mike: He’s like fuck this car.
Sarah: And then one by one more and more snazzy white people come up. I’ve never seen that, I’m not saying it couldn't happen but like it is weird and hard to imagine.
Mike: Yeah so one thing that is interesting about this is Zimbardo never set out to have anything to do with the broken windows theory - like this wasn’t, this didn’t exist in 1969 when he did this experiment. What he was actually doing was putting the car in these two different cities to make an argument about cities. Because a big thing in sorta situational list thinking at the time was the idea at the time that cities are crime ridden hell holes because of deindividualization, that you become less of an individual in a city, you become more anonymized and so therefore you’re willing to carry out more and more quote on quote“psychopathic behaviors” because you know you are never going to be held accountable.
Mike: So you will love this, in his book. He begins a chapter about this with the story of a young woman named Kitty Genovese.
Sarah: I’ve heard of this young lady.
Mike: So as listeners will know, this is the myth of this woman who was stabbed in an apartment courtyard in front of 38 of her neighbors and none of them called 911. Literally none of those details are true. Like it wasn't 38 people. It wasn't in an apartment courtyard. People did call the police, 911 did not exist at the time. So that is why people did not call it. Sarah: And one of the tragedies of this way that we have making allegories that suit our emotional needs out of real people's lives is that they get forgotten and one of the things we talk about is that Kitty Genovese was a lesbian
Sarah: And one of the reasons that one of the most proximate witnesses didn't call the cops potentially was that he was gay and understood that the NYPD would probably mistreat him horribly because that was how they related to gay people.
Sarah: And to make the behaviors of any small group of people, somehow predictive of humanity for the next 50 to 60 years. Like it's never going to work. So why do that to people?
Mike: Right, so he’s writing this in 2008 and he just quotes with no caveats, the first paragraph of the infamous New York times story that says like 38 people watch a woman get killed, blah, blah, blah.
Mike: And then he says a recent re-analysis of the details of this case cast doubt upon how many people actually saw the events unfolding and whether they really comprehended what was happening. Nevertheless, there seems to be no question that many residents of this well-kept, usually quiet, almost suburban neighborhood, heard the chilling screams and did not help in any way.
Sarah: The chilling screams my quick shelling screens.
Mike: I just want that nevertheless, to be in like point 50 font, like it's doing a lot of work.
Sarah: Yeah. Oh my God. Nevertheless, you know, it was like the Dutch boy holding this whole book together.
Mike: But this to me encapsulates the way that he discusses his own academic work and other people's academic work. You know, he's going to tell you a story and then he's like, well, maybe the story isn't true at all, all of the premises in it are bullshit.
Sarah and Mike: Nevertheless.
Mike: I'm just going to make the same point. And so the whole thing of the car that he parked in Palo Alto and it sat there until Zimbardo came along and broke one of its windows and then all of a sudden, all these other people started destroying the car. The quote unquote passers by who destroyed the car were Zimbardo's graduate students. Sarah: Well, I just feel like that might have bearing on the study.
Mike: Seems relevant. So basically they parked a car in a random street in Palo Alto for a week. Nothing happened then a week later, they parked the same car on campus at Stanford. Another week goes by nobody does anything. Zimbardo was like, ah, nothing's happening. So he goes out there with a sledgehammer and like five of his students
Mike: And they all start destroying the car sort of in public, like it's a walkable area and people are around.
Sarah: It's very interesting that he's invested in the premise that like well-dressed white people just want to beat up cars. Cause it's like, maybe you want to do that, man.
Sarah: And you're the well-dressed white guy you're talking about, that's fine.
Mike: And he makes a big deal out of the fact that like eventually other Stanford students joined in, I was like, well, yeah, if there's eight people destroying a car on campus and they're like offering me the sledgehammer like, yeah, I'll take a couple whacks, but that doesn't say anything about human nature. Like aren't we all subject to evil, like, not really man.
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, it looks, I'm sure it would look fun. Why not? I am the well-dressed white person you fear Philip Zombardo. I'm not well-dressed though. I look awful.
Mike: So this stuff on some level, is not necessarily Zimbardo's fault because it's the authors of the broken windows study that sort of take his work and twist it to their weird broken windows theory thing. But then in 2008 in Zimbardo's book, he retells the story of this experiment and comes to the opposite conclusion.
Mike: So, the myth of the original park a car in two places study is the idea that people in the Bronx and people in Palo Alto are subject to the same forces.
Sarah: Oh, well-dressed white people want to assault cars.
Mike: Yes, exactly. So, yeah he retells the story in his 2008 book where he says, we parked it in the Bronx, it got destroyed. We parked it in Palo Alto and nobody touched it for a week. And then he completely deletes the part where he parks it on the Stanford campus and they destroy it.
Mike: And then he uses that to make an argument about the difference between Bronx and Palo Alto.
Mike: So listen to this fucking paragraph. It drives me insane.
Mike: He says community spirit thrives in a quiet, orderly way in places such as Palo Alto.
Sarah: No it doesn’t.
Mike: I know where people care about the physical and social quality of their lives and have the resources to work at improving both.
Mike: Here in Palo Alto, there is a sense of fairness and trust that contrasts with the nagging tugs of inequity and cynicism that dragged down folks in other places. Here, for example, people have faith in their police department to control crime and contain evil.
Mike: You’re going to love this - justifiably so because the police are well-educated, well-trained, friendly and honest. At rare times, even the best of them can let authority rule over their humanity. That doesn't happen often in a place like Palo Alto.
Sarah: This is like the point at which I don't know what the academic equivalent of this is. It's just like, okay, here's your coat because you have to leave this party now.
Mike: I mean, I think what really explains a lot of Zimbardo's problems is that he's kind of an SJW.
Sarah: A single Jewish woman.
Mike: No, uh, he's definitely a social justice warrior, but he has this very like sixties version of a social justice warrior. Right, so he talks about how he's against the Vietnam war. He's for, you know, integration, civil rights. Some of his early work is actually about coerced confessions. So to give him credit, like nobody was talking about coerced confessions back then.
Sarah: Yeah, I take back 20% of my sassy notes.
Mike: Yeah, but then he also, for a guy that studies prisons he also seems really naive about power relations.
Sarah: He is interested in well-dressed white people. That is his area.
Mike: Exactly and so he's weirdly blind to sort of like the realities of policing and the fact that it's not only the personality and the situation that are these sort of two opposing forces that make us behave the way that we do. It's also like, well, what race are the police? And what race are the quote unquote criminals and what messages do the police get about criminals and like could that be affecting their behavior too Phil?
Sarah: And did the police live in the communities that they are working in.
Sarah: And what kind of training are they receiving and who's in charge of them?
Mike: So now we know the kind of person that Phil Zimbardo is. We are finally going to talk about the experiment itself.
Mike: Yay, so a lot of this comes from a researcher named Tebeau Latitsay.
Mike: He is the only researcher who has ever gone back and looked at the entire archive of material produced by the Stanford Prison Experiment.
Mike: And he wrote a book called The History of a Lie.
Mike: The asterisk behind this book is that the book is in French and it has not been translated into English. So I called him up, talked to him about everything that he found, and I had a bunch of questions and he was nice enough to send me a Google translated version of the book.
Sarah: Was it readable?
Mike: It was actually pretty good, weirdly.
Mike: The only weird thing was that every time it referred to guards, it said goalkeepers because I guess that's the French word.
Sarah: That’s really great though.
Mike: So just we're just going to kind of walk through the experiment step-by-step. The first thing that he found that has really never been discussed is that the Stanford Prison Experiment was plagiarized from a previous experiment.
Mike: The Stanford prison study was August 14th to 19th 1971. In May of 1971, one of Phil Zimbardo's students had done a similar thing at his dormitory.
Mike: He had gotten a bunch of participants. He had arbitrarily split them up into prisoners and guards and for a weekend he had them sort of play these roles and exactly the same thing happened. Sarah: Huh.
Mike: The researcher who did it was one of some Zimbardo’s students named David Jaffe.
Sarah: Did he do this for like a paper or a project?
Mike: Yeah he did it for a project in Zimbardo's class.
Sarah: Isn’t he owed like money or something?
Mike: He’s actually an interesting figure because he's one of the central figures in the Stanford Prison Experiment, because he's like one of the main wardens and yet he's never given an interview to the press and to boost that when he called, David Jaffe, he hung up on him.
Mike: This is a thing that happens in research all the time that you sort of take somebody else's methodology and you sort of extended or replicated or whatever. But what Tebeau points out is that it's just really weird that Zimbardo has never talked about this.
Sarah: Like, it would make sense to be like my student had a wonderful idea and we collaborated.
Mike: Yeah, the other thing that Tebeau finds in the archives is basically that from day one, Zimbardo was thinking of this as an awareness raising exercise for prison reform. As early as the second day of the study, when he sends out this press release in the press release, he says the study should make us aware that prison reform is psychologically necessary so that the men who commit crimes are not transformed into objects dehumanized by their prison experience. And this was day two, this was before anything happened.
Sarah: Yeah, and it's just like, so he's clearly going in assuming what kind of results he's going to get. And that seems to be what he's doing with these other experiments that we've talked about.
Sarah: Which you can't do.
Mike: Yes. It's bad. Yes. So that's basically the Genesis of the study. So now we're going to get into the actual study itself and I am going to send you a photo.
Sarah: Oh yay, okay male students needed to participate in psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for one to two weeks, beginning, August 14 further information and applications may be obtained in room 248 Jordan Hall.
Mike: What do you think this is Sarah? What could it possibly be?
Sarah: I feel like it might be our experiment Mike.
Mike: Ummm hmmm, this is the advertisement asking for participants in the study.
Sarah: Male students.
Mike: Male, I know.
Sarah: Capital male.
Mike: So Zimbardo gets 75 respondents to the ad and an important aspect of this that comes up again and again, and I feel like it is totally downplayed in all of the textbooks about this is that $15 bucks a day is a hundred dollars a day in 2020 money. Which is like actually pretty good money.
Sarah: Yeah, a hundred bucks a day for a student or a grad student seems very enticing.
Mike: Yes and a lot of them appear to have read the thing about prison life to assume that they would be sort of like in prison cells, but like with nothing to do. So a lot of them brought like stacks of books. One guy wanted to study for the GRE.
Mike: He was like, well, I can make money and I can just like, whatever, be in a prison cell with my book studying, and it'll be some dumb prison thing, but I can make money and study for the GRE.
Sarah: It is interesting that they assumed that prison life is like, you know, you sit there quietly reading all day and it's like, oh, okay that's your first problem.
Mike: So on Sunday, August 14th, they arrest all of the guys.
Sarah: Do they like to break things in their houses and shoot their girlfriends and stuff too?
Mike: No, but he does get real cops. I mean, he asked the police department of Palo Alto to go and arrest them and he drives to San Francisco to pick up a local reporter who has a camera, and then drives him to the arrests.
Sarah: Ok I really appreciate this level of commitment. I think Zimbardo was maybe more of a showman than an academic, but like he's really shining in these details.
Mike: Yes so he basically picks up all of the prisoners and gets them into this like weird little basement corridor in Jordan Hall of Stanford. Zimbardo has always defended the study and called it scientific because of the random coin flip to assign people to either prisoner or guard.
Sarah: That coin is like the nevertheless it's like, if it's all hanging on something so little, I don't know.
Mike: Well, also this is not even a remotely random sample of the population.
Mike: Even if you randomize later you're getting A, all dudes, B all people who have like nothing else to do during the summer and C all people who are enticed by a hundred dollars a day.
Sarah: And are they Stanford students, are they all Stanford students?
Mike: It’s not clear how many, any of them are. A lot of them are just sort of like bumming around Palo Alto or they're from there, or, you know, or some of them are like matriculating in the fall, but they haven't started yet. It's actually quite a mix.
Sarah: Ok. Mike: There’s actually a thing in 2007, this is like, so fucking salty. There's these researchers who place an almost word for word recapitulation of this ad in the newspaper. And they get all these respondents and then they just give them personality tests, and then they send them home. And what they find is that the kind of person who responds to an ad like this is way higher like aggressiveness and all of these other personality traits, then the population as a whole.
Mike: It comes back to something that Tebeau found when he went into the archives. So one of the things Zimbardo has always said to defend the study is that, you know, there's recordings of the study. And, you know, if you go on YouTube, you can find all of the clips that they have and, you know, they kept all this data and they did personality tests on the subjects. But of the 150 hours that the study took, only six hours were recorded on video. And there's another sort of 10-12 hours that are audio recordings but a lot of that is just like the day long orientation that they gave the guards on the first day. And he admits because filming was expensive - he admits that they only turned on the camera when like something super fucked up was going on. They're like, ooh we better film this.
Sarah: So yeah and then it becomes, it's like, okay, so are you saying that like the system disintegrated in a consistent way or that like the disturbing things happened at various points? Causes like these are different things.
Mike: Exactly again, we see just like we saw with the Tuskegee study that there's all this talk of like, you know, the scientific validity and how it's so important for science. And then you look into it and the actual science is extremely bad.
Mike: So the first day of the study was an orientation for the guards and this becomes a really important component of the debate over the study that has been going on for decades now. So we are going to do a little table read.
Mike: I’m going to give you the meaty roll.
Sarah: Oh, thank you,so generous. Mike: As an intro to this, this is what Philip Zimbardo says in his defense has 7,000 word defense of the Stanford Prison Experiment. This is from the first day of the study, like the first day that they're actually in the prison, he says one of the three guards on a shift that day left the area during a prisoner count and wasn't even requiring prisoners to follow orders issued by the other guards. So David Jaffe acting as the warden, took this guard aside and asked him to become more active, involved and tough in order to make the experimental setting seem more like a prison. So this is the conversation between David Jaffe, the warden and this guard that is kind of like not really taking it seriously on the first day. So you can go ahead and be Jaffe and I'll be the guard.
Sarah: Okay, I'm Jaffe. Generally, you've been kind of in the background. Part of that is my fault because I've got aligned with you when you wanted to sit outside while they were doing the count or that sort of thing, but we really want to get you active and involved because the guards have to know that every guard is going to be what we call a tough guard.
Mike: I’m not too tough.
Sarah: Yeah, well you have to try and get it in you.
Mike: Well, I don't know about that.
Sarah: See, the thing is what I mean by tough is you have to be firm and you have to be in the action and that sort of thing. It's really important for the workings of the experiment, because whether or not we can make this thing seem like a prison, because the aim of the thing largely depends on the guard's behavior.
Mike: Nope, end of transcript. What do you think?
Sarah: So, okay. You can't say that you bring in people and say, you're the prisoners and you're the guards and they start spontaneously doing prisoner guard stuff when really you're like, hey buddy. We got to ask you to be more of a guard. You're not really giving it a hundred percent.
Mike: Yes, yes.
Sarah: It’s like the whole premise of the experiment and the point of why it's supposed to be interesting is, is we'd be like, oh my gosh, these guys started giving a hundred percent and we never asked for it.
Mike: Exactly, this drives me nuts.
Mike: The thing I kept thinking this whole week, when I was reading about it was like, you know, we're going to do a study on how many slices of pizza college students will eat if we give it to them for free. Right and if you pull one college student aside and you're like, you're not eating enough pizza.
Mike: It’s like, this is the fucking thing you're supposed to be measuring.
Sarah: That’s exactly what it is. It's like, Jamie, you really need to be bulking up, okay, like doesn’t that Hawaiian like pretty good too ya?
Mike: So one of the things that Tebeau finds when he goes back into the archives and listens to all the recordings and looks at all the documents, is it like they had a training day for the guards where they specifically told them basically to be abusive. It was not a mystery that the researchers wanted the guards to act super-duper goalkeeper ish.
Sarah: It's just so weird because these experiments are like, he's like hit the car, abuse the prisoner. And it's like why are you encouraging this outcome? And then running to the media and being like, “Oh my God, you guy.”
Mike: I know.
Sarah: People and antisocial behaviors and it's like because you enticed them to do so. What is the purpose of this?
Mike: Yes, one of my favorite things because Zimbardo famously testifies at the trial against one of the Abu Ghraib torturers and I have not found him admitting this anywhere else but on cross examination in that trial. They're basically like pushing him on this idea that the guards did this all spontaneously like without orders. And they ask him about the fact that the prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment that the guards would often put a bag on their head and Zimbardo says, you know, they did this spontaneously. And then the prosecutor's like, well, didn't you tell them to do this? And Zimbardo was like, oh yeah, we told them to put a bag on the prisoner's head when they walked them to the bathroom, because the bathroom is in a different building, but soon they started doing it themselves. Well, you still told them to do it and just because they did it more doesn't mean that they're getting into their role as guards. It's like, they're just following orders.
Sarah: They started doing it spontaneously after I told them too.
Sarah:It's also, this is like a great testament to how low the bar for relevance or expertise is for an expert witness. And this is not even that bad.
Mike: I know there's actually a great book one of the prosecutors at the Abu Ghraib trial wrote a book. It was called The Secrets of Abu Ghraib, which is actually really interesting. And he has a whole chapter dedicated to how Zimbardo’s full of shit. It's such a detour.
Sarah: This is like, yeah, like Nancy Grace wishes she had a real nemesis like this.
Mike: This is also the last thing I want to say about this. This is completely absurd. So two guards quit the study. One of them quit because he didn't like how harsh the training was.
Sarah: I wanted to study for the LSATs in there, honestly.
Mike: Yes. So this is from Tebeau's book. One of his Zimbardo’s guards resigned an interesting fact that I have only found a mention of once in 47 years. In the press release on the second day of the experiment, one of the guards refused to continue because he found that it was too heavy.
Sarah: This is just like Kitty Genovese, because it's like, wow, people are truly awful unless you ignore these like 17 other contrasting pieces of evidence, but forget about it. Nevertheless, I mean, it's just weird because it's like, okay, sorry to get all the awfully cold in here, Mike.
Mike: I knew he was going to come up.
Sarah: Sorry to take us through the cul de sac.
Sarah: Aren’t we actually getting into an interesting concept of how, like the act of being assigned as a guard for another human being is intrinsically sadistic and trying to replicate even your vegas understanding of what prison guardship is like means? Encouraging the roots of sadism cause it's like prisons are sadistic institutions. So like it's because whatever you tell them to do, there will be sadism involved, I think.
Mike: This is actually what, one of the very interesting epilogues of the Stanford Prison Experiment, because there's an Australian team of researchers that attempts to replicate it in 1979. This is the thing that never shows up in the textbooks. And instead of running it, once they run it three times. And in one condition, it's like a super duper harsh prison, harsh guards and like basically the same thing that happened in Zimbardo's experiment happens in theirs, although it's like slightly less rough. But then in these other two conditions, they run it with more sort of participatory structures and more dialogue between prisoners and guards. And it basically ends up being like summer camp, when there's more ways for prisoners to participate in the conditions of their imprisonment. They're like, look, we get it. We can't leave. There's going to be curfews. There's going to be counts, et cetera. But let's talk about how to structure these in like the least dehumanizing way possible.
Mike: It actually ends up much less dehumanizing. So one of the things that ends up traveling from this study is this idea that like prisons are inherently abusive -guard, prisoner relationships are inherently sadistic, but the specifics actually really matter.
Sarah: Yeah, see this is me being ruined by being an American, like a society does need situations where like people are capable of supervising other people without abusing them, which I think is something that we can't really do in any way in America on a large scale.
Mike: I mean, I always think there's, there's been a lot of really interesting articles in New York review of books about prison rape. It's a fucking joke in our society, but it's extremely not funny. And it happens pervasively, but it happens much more in some prisons than in others. There are things you can do structurally to prevent prison rape and we don't do those things in some prisons. So all of this sadistic quote, unquote psychopathic behavior of guards, it's like, it actually matters the way that you set up these institutions.
Sarah: Yeah. So what are like, what are the basic guard rules? What are the other things that they're told to do?
Mike: Well? Zimbardo is big on sort of the trappings of authority. So he makes sure that the guards have uniforms. He makes sure that the prisoners have uniforms that are deliberately designed to be emasculating. So he makes them put on these sort of like hospital gown-ish uniforms with no underwear. So they're just sort of like in physical discomfort.
Sarah: People in prison have underwear.
Mike: I mean, this is, this is another thing it's like in some ways, the study is like less hardcore than a real prison. And in some ways it's more hardcore than a real prison. A big thing is he asks the guards to call the prisoners by their numbers, never their names. He makes them put a lock, like a big, heavy padlock around one of their feet. So they basically don't get any sleep every night because it's just really uncomfortable this thing.
Sarah: We’re like, we can't replicate prison, but we can do something else. That's really weird.
Mike: Exactly, I mean, over the next couple of days, The guards really do get pretty creative and pretty sadistic. I mean, we're going to go now into sort of what actually happens once the study starts. So I think it's important to watch clips of this just so you can see how cloistered and weird the environment is but also like a lot of the footage is pretty disturbing because bad stuff really did happen. So we're going to watch a clip from Quiet Rage, which is the documentary that Zimbardo produced about the study.
Sarah: All right.
Mike: All right.
Sarah: Three, two, one go!
*video clip plays* Because the first day passed without incident, we were surprised and totally unprepared for the rebellion, which broke out on the morning of the second day. When waking the prisons for the 10 o'clock count, the morning guard shift found that the prisoners in cell number one had removed their stocking calves, ripped off their numbers and barricaded themselves inside the cells. By putting their beds against the door. Prisons began to taunt and curse the guards to their face. This, of course, embarrassed and upset the guards. The morning shift immediately called in reinforcements. They asked the night shift to stay on and they called up three other standby guards to help put down the rebellion.
Sarah: Well this kind of makes it all make sense to me actually.
Sarah: It’s like, you got a bunch of young guys, you divided them into two groups, they developed a rivalry and then it's like, they're just going to escalate that over time it seems like.
Sarah: And that's the dynamic between two groups of guys is happens on the bachelorette. This happens in fraternities.
Mike: One of the very smart things that the guards do after this rebellion is they start a divide and conquer strategy. So they convert one of the cells into like the privilege cell where you get like nice blankets, a nice bed, I think you get better food. And then they're totally arbitrary with who gets into the privilege cell and who isn't. So the prisoners turn on each other, like, are you ratting us out? At one point, they make them clean the toilets with their hands.
Sarah: That’s dangerous. You get sepsis from that.
Mike: It’s not good. They also, they won't let them go to the bathroom at night. So they put buckets in their cells and then they won't let them empty the buckets, which is like really fucking gross. So it just like smells awful.
Mike: So on day three is the first prisoner gets released. One of the prisoners basically starts breaking down, crying. So we go from nine prisoners down to eight prisoners.
Sarah: How many guards?
Mike: Also nine.
Mike: Another extremely weird thing on day four, they bring in visitors. It just seems like it would encourage the prisoners to break character rather than to maintain character.
Sarah: Yeah, exactly. They haven't been immersed for very long .
Mike: In the New York Times magazine article that Zimbardo published in 1973, he does this extremely unconvincing thing where he talks about how, like even the visitors adopted their role as prison visitors cause like we chopped down the visitor time from an hour to only 10 minutes and they were upset about it, but they only complained to the warden and it's like, I dunno man like they probably just didn't know who else to complain to, I don't know.
Sarah: It’s a little thin.
Mike: He also on day five they bring in a priest. I don't know why Zimbardo did all these weird theatrics. He brings in a priest to like, sort of pretend to be a prison chaplain. And then in his article he talks about how like, even the priest adopted his role and was acting like a prison chaplain.
Sarah: Well, can you really tell the difference on site between a prison chaplain and a regular Priest though?
Sarah: This orthodontist took on the role of a dentist.
Mike: But this is, this is just another, like put down the vape fill moment. You're like, I guess he took on his role, but like, why bother? Just talk about the prisoners and the guardsman. Sarah: Ya.
Mike: On day five, there's also a prisoner goes on hunger strike.
Sarah: Oh, wow. That did escalate quickly but also, do you remember like day three of quarantine and in like March where people were like, I'm planning my garden and then you look back and you're like, oh yeah, look at that.
Mike: There’s also another one of the people who left the study is you see this in all of the descriptions of the Stanford Prison Experiment, there's Zimbardo and other people will say, you know, the conditions got so bad. One guy got a rash all over his body and he had to leave the study and this is always seen as sort of this like psychosomatic illness of the conditions are so bad and he's such a prisoner that he gets this rash and Zimbardo talks about it as like him internalizing the conditions in the prison. It turns out one of the prisoners had eczema and they took away his medication. So the only reason that he got this rash all over his body was because he didn't have his eczema medication with him for a week. Like it's not that mysterious.
But one of the things Zimbardo always talks about how, you know, people really got into the role as prisoner and they really sort of adopted the self identity as a prisoner and a lot of them were having these like sort of breakdowns and like trying to get out of there. But what's weird and what he doesn't see the significance of is that all of them thought that they couldn't leave the experiment.
Sarah: Oh, see, this is the bit to me. This is supposed to be the biggest, like twist reveal of it all. It's like they could have left at any time.
Mike: Zimbardo says they could have left at any time, but like, oh, they were so into the roles.
Sarah: Also, what if they really need the like 300 bucks or whatever they're hoping it works out to.
Mike: Exactly and another very important thing about the payment is that you don't get paid until the end.
Mike: So they had an incentive to stay on as long as possible.
Sarah: Come on, Phil, if it's such a good study, why do you have to hide stuff?
Mike: Exactly. So Zimbardo now says, he's like, if they said I quit the experiment here by, then I would've let them leave, but there's no evidence that he ever communicated that to any of them.
Mike: This is weird to me. This is, uh, from Tebeau's book. He points out that in the sort of application to the Stanford ethics committee, there's a sentence in there that it says that they would be led to believe that they couldn't leave except for emergency reasons. So first of all, it is fucking nuts that an ethics committee looked at this and was like, have a good one Phil sounds good. Secondly, I don't know what the difference is between prisoners in a prison and research subjects that cannot leave an experiment.
Sarah: Yeah, I think he gets to accidentally started a prison honey.
Mike: Zimbardo keeps talking about like, oh, like they took on the identity of prisoners but they were prisoners.
Sarah: Yeah, you just rounded up a bunch of people who didn't need to be there and then systematically mistreated them.
Mike: And one guy, I mean, some of the guys that had these sort of breakdowns, that was the only way to get out of the study.
Sarah: So he's like, I started a little prison and everyone acted like they were in prison. Mike: Well they were in prison.
Mike: There’s also the accusation that some of the participants were faking.
Mike: So we're going to listen to a clip. This is one of the prisoners named Doug Korpi, who has a breakdown and later says that he faked the breakdown.
Mike: So he says that you can tell from this clip that he's faking.
*video clip plays* ”I feel really fucked up inside, I really feel fucked up inside. You don't know. I got to go to a doctor, anything. I can't see them. I’m fucked up, I don't know how to explain, I’m fucked up inside. I want out, I want out now. God dammit, I’m fucked up. You don't know, you don't know, I mean God. I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside don’t you know. I just can’t fucking take it.”
Sarah: Sorry, I felt that the don’t ya know.
Sarah: It’s funny. I wouldn't say that I can tell that's fake because I think that people who are being very sincere can sound sincere and vice versa all the time.
Sarah: But yeah he, I mean, he certainly, I've heard people whose, whose hearts are, are more in it.
Sarah: He sounds tired. He sounds too tired to be having a full breakdown. He doesn't have that like crazy breakdown strength that circumvents fatigue, if you're like really beside yourself, he's he's like, I'm making a scene.
Sarah: Please, ahhh, I appreciate the effort.
Mike: He now says that he was faking it but Zimbardo points out correctly that he's changed his story a bunch of times over the years.
Sarah: Oh ok.
Mike: He participates in a documentary where he says I had a breakdown, I totally believed it. He shows up on Dr. Phil with Zimbardo at one point and tells the story as if it was totally true. There's also one of the guards now says that he was making it up, that he was playing a character from Cool Hand Luke. The footage is really funny cause he likes it, he he's from, I think the Pacific Northwest he's never been to Texas, but he adopts this like extremely fake Texas accent. It's like, now I'm going to give you a choice.
Sarah: East Texas, I guess.
Mike: I mean, his is worse than mine and mine is quite bad. Another thing Tebeau of course interviewed him and said, He was a theater major and was like doing a lot of improv at the time.
Mike: Zimbardo says that he also has a reason to lie and say that he was faking it which I actually agree with. Like, if I was acting like a complete prick in one of the world's most famous psychological studies, I would probably say like, oh, I was just pretending to be a prick.
Sarah: Yeah, I mean, there's like there's degrees in all of these situations.
Mike: I mean, I actually don't find the idea that some of the participants were faking it all that compelling because I think there's such better evidence that this entire study was bullshit. The central fact that has never been a secret; you don't need to go to any archives to find it, is that not all of the guards were sadistic. It's only about three of the guards that ever acted shitty.
Sarah: Oh, that's quite low, that’s a third.
Sarah: It’s probably a third of a random, you know guys are shitty in Palo Alto.
Mike: So there’s a New York Times article written about Zimbardo in the study in 1971 after he testifies before Congress. And he says, it's clear that almost anyone put in a certain kind of situation can be made to behave toward other beings in a demeaning and brutal fashion. No, because it's not almost anyone, it's one third, in your own study.
Sarah: Right, like I get what he's trying to say and it and it connects with something that I really try to say, which is like, we're all capable of like much worse behavior, then it's comfortable to believe like people who've done horrible things probably were not born destined to do horrible things.
Sarah: And you can also do something scary at one time in your life and then be safe for people to be around at other times. And I feel like what he's trying to say is in line with that, but I feel like he's also trying to say human beings are capable of any kind of behavior and I can induce it in them in 48 hours.
Mike: Exactly. And you really can’t.
Mike: One of the best articles talking shit on the Stanford Prison Experiment is by Eric Fromm and it's from 1973, the same year that the study itself comes out. This is what he says. "The authors believe it proves that the situation alone can within a few days transform normal people into abject submissive individuals or into ruthless sadists. It seems to me that the experiment proves if anything, rather the contrary. In spite of the whole spirit of this mock prison, which was meant to be degrading and humiliating, two thirds of the guards did not commit sadistic acts for personal kicks. The experiment seems rather to prove that one can not transform people so easily into sadists by providing them with the proper situation.”
Sarah: Yeah and I feel like this connects to like the false binary that actually leads people to feel such resistance to the ideas that I'm, I'm talking about, where, you know, people like so you're telling me that I'm not in control of my actions at all. And if some professor puts me in a basement I’ll become abusive in two days. And it's like, no, I'm just saying that like human beings are complex. And we do things for a lot of reasons all at once, all the time, you know, because this idea that like, not just that human beings are complicated and malleable, but that they're so malleable and like an individual person can so easily predict and bend around their natures. It's like, that's the kind of hubris that keeps actual prisons around.
Mike: Right. So we're going to do a sort of mega debunking, but I just want to talk very quickly about how they stopped the study.
Sarah: The Meg.
Mike: So he's told various different stories over the years, the sort of the story that he has alighted on is that his girlfriend at the time who's named Christina Mazlock. The story, the sort of official story is that he brought her to the prison. And she saw all the dudes like shackled with paper bags on their heads. This was day five of the study and then that night they got in some huge fight where she's like, you're dehumanizing these people, this is awful. You need to stop this experiment and Zimbardo eventually agreed and the next day he came in and stopped the experiment to Bose theory. Zimbardo stopped the study because he hadn't slept in two days. And he basically had already gotten what he needed to get and he was exhausted.
Sarah: And he was like tired of supervising it because once he was just there the whole time, like, it seems like this was a tiny team.
Mike: Yeah. It was like three of his researchers and then Zimbardo.
Sarah: It’s weird because they're the guards in the situation, like they're the ones that are supervising these kids.
Mike: And also a very well known technique in persuasion is to admit the weaknesses in your own argument because it builds trust and it makes people see you as a reliable interlocutor more. What's interesting about the way that Zimbardo talks about this and the way that Zimbardo writes this up is he always says like, I too was getting too into my role as the warden. Like he talks about the weaknesses.
Sarah: Oh, well, yeah. It's like the experiment was too powerful.
Mike: Exactly, but what we know is that on day six, he ends the experiment.
Sarah: I hope he gave them a car to beat up later as a thank you gift.
Mike: I know. So basically the study ends and then it becomes the stuff of legend. But I want to spend the rest of the show doing a sort of like all hands on deck debunking because I think the, sort of the central you're wrong about, of this episode, isn't really sort of the new information that's come out or the secret documents or behind the scenes stuff. It's really that this never should have been in the textbooks in the first place. Some of the best writing about the Stanford Prison Experiment is done by Holocaust scholars who were basically saying, “why the fuck study a bunch of people in a different country, in a different language. If you wanted to understand the Holocaust, just study the Holocaust to understand the Holocaust.”
Sarah: Listen, if they think the Holocaust is close, they should see how close prisons are.
Mike: Again, there's a lot of debate over what Hannah Arendt said and thought, et cetera, but the sort of the message from Eichmann in Jerusalem that traveled is not true. Adolf Eichmann was not a middle manager who was just following orders. He was a rabid anti-Semite.
Sarah: Right, he was painting himself as that in testimony.
Mike: Yes, exactly. That was a legal defense. The whole thing of, I was just following orders is a fucking excuse for that behavior. It's a way to avoid culpability. It's not an actual explanation. This is from, this is an excerpt from a Holocaust researcher who is talking about Zimbardo. “What was truly frightening about Eichmann was not that he was unaware of what he was doing, but rather that he knew what he was doing and believed it to be right. Equally, what is shocking about Milgram's experiments is it rather than being distressed by their actions, participants could be led to construe them as service in the cause of goodness.” So this is a big lesson from the Holocaust that if you convince somebody that something horrific is like for the greater good. You can convince people to do incredibly shitty things.
Mike: This is something that Zimbardo was blind to that a lot of his participants thought that they were part of a study that was going to contribute to prison reform.
Sarah: And maybe they wanted to try out an accent. And also like he himself is doing this shitty thing and telling himself it's part of the greater good, like, regardless of whatever was going on in their minds, like we know that was happening.
Mike: Oh, absolutely. There’s also some very interesting research from actual prisons. Zimbardo didn't give a shit about prisons. He didn't know anything about prisons. He had never been to a prison. One thing that's very important, they actually say structurally, the Stanford Prison Experiment is much closer to a POW camp or a concentration camp then a prison because in prisons, first of all, there's an existing hierarchy. You don't have prisons that are being made spontaneously with a bunch of prisoners all arriving there and guards at the exact same time.
What happens is when you go into prison, you are one person and there are decades long social systems in place. There are people who are older there, the guards have all kinds of standards of behavior that have been built up over years. It’s not really teaching us anything about prisons to have this pop-up prison, like a fucking street food restaurant in soho.
Sarah: It’s underestimating the complexity of prisons.
Mike: Yes. This is an excerpt from a 1958 study on prisons about the ways that guards and wardens behave;
“The warden frequently fails to report rule violations that have taken place in front of him. The guard often transmits prohibited information to the detainees, such as plans to surprise certain cells to search for contraband. The warden has a habit of buying obedience in some cases while tolerating disobedience elsewhere. And who knows if he will not one day be held hostage by the prisoners. Prison therefore does not necessarily lead to the strictest authoritarianism as Zimbardo believes. It can just as much lead to collusion, compromise and appeasement. The person versus situation and the relationship between a human being and the structures of power around them is really complex.”
Sarah: Well, can we also talk about how, if you create a study and know what kind of result you want to get out of it, then it's going to be very difficult for you to not reverse engineer it to confirm your bias because it seems like no one was really taking pains to try and avoid that.
Sarah: And then I think whatever you got from that is really fruit of the poison tree, because the study didn't do anything for an knowledge about prisons didn't do anything for a knowledge about the Holocaust, but it did teach us a lot about what we as Americans wanted to hear and wanted to believe about what human beings were like in 1971.
Sarah: I feel as if using this as a way of saying like, well prisons just naturally degrade into abusive situations, nothing to be done. That interpretation of this data so to speak also ignores the possibility of a world where there is such a thing as a prison that actively tries to uphold the rights of its inmates.
Mike: Umm Hmm.
Sarah: The idea that it's possible to have a prison whose guards aren’t engaging in sadism, I think actually appears to be pretty absent from the American mind based on this study and my response to it. Me and Zimbardo were the same.
Sarah: And I think this also explains part of our attachment, like our social need for the prisoner. Not even the prison or the criminal as a figure is the idea that like, once someone can be branded a criminal, you can do anything to them. You can kill them in the street, you can steal their kids, whatever you can do whatever. And I feel like we might just be reliant on the concept of like needing to have certain kinds of people who like cops and white people can murder whatever they want.
Mike: Yeah, yeah.
Sarah: I don't love it.
Mike: This to me gets at, I think, the underrated reason why this study isn't applicable to real-world prisons or genocides or totalitarian regimes, whatever is all but one of the participants were white. One of the participants was Asian-American and this is somehow seen as making it more scientifically valid. Like we're taking away, you know, gender differences, we're taking away racial differences and we can focus only on the human traits that make us more or less susceptible to sadism. But the fact is most prisons have a racial component to them. Most totalitarian regimes have a racial component to them. Trying to hold all of these other factors constant, it doesn't actually tell you anything because the real world does not hold those factors constant. And in fact, racial dehumanization and gender bias and all of the implicit fucking garbage that we go into situations with actually explains totalitarian regimes a lot.
Mike: So to take all of that away and be like, oh, well now we have a pure explanation. No, it's a less convincing explanation. If you don't have any of those aspects at play.
Sarah: It’s like alpha males. It's like, why are these people behaving this way? It's like, well, because the situation is weird.
Mike: I mean, so much of the story is really about the sort of ted talk ification of social science.
Mike: One of the things that gives the Stanford Prison Experiment credibility is this idea that it's scientific. That we can take universal lessons from it in a way that we can't from actual history. So it's always interesting to me in a country where like, we don't have great historical teaching. We don't have a great sense of like what's going on in other countries and yet, we sort of fall over and over again for these like, to pat, ted talky, little descriptions of things that come from very isolated studies when, like the reasons why people collaborate with totalitarian regimes, like, are we short on totalitarian regimes? The majority of the world population lived under dictatorial regimes at that time.
Sarah: I think Phil Zimbardo’s suspiciousness of well-dressed whites is entirely founded and I think that's like the secret hypothesis that his work is confirming the whole time. And he did great with that.
Mike: One of the best quotes on this is from Eric Fromm’s 1973 article, where he says “One cannot help raising the question about the value of such artificial experiments when there is so much material available for natural experiments. The question suggests itself all the more, because experiments of this type, not only lack the alleged accuracy, which is supposed to make them preferable to natural experiments, but also because the artificial setup tends to distort the whole experiment situation as compared to one in real life. What is meant here by real life?” I guess we're not supposed to take lessons from the Holocaust because like it's Germany, it's a specific cultural and political situation, I guess, but then isn't a bunch of fucking Stanford undergrads too.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s certainly, I mean, the Holocaust is certainly less specific than like some students getting paid $15 a day to act weird in a basement.
Sarah: Like this is a historical saga really that involved the lives of tens of millions of people. You know, this, this feels like American provincialism.
Mike: And this, this thing that once you slap the label of science on something, it becomes somehow more credible than history, which I just think is very, very strange.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s super weird.
Mike: One of the depressing things about this is that Ben Bloom, who's this freelance journalist who wrote a very good debunker of the study last year. He interviewed a bunch of psychology professors who write textbooks and a huge number of them just told him like, well, it's a really good story so I'm going to include it.
Sarah: Gotta keep the kids paying attention.
Mike: Yeah, also, I mean, like I said, I have a degree in psychology when we learned Freud, we didn't learn that like Freud was right.
Sarah: Well, I feel like a parade in Socrates or maybe comparable figures. It's like, did they invent the world in which we live? Yes, where they write about everything? God no.
Mike: God, no, exactly. So I want to end with a quote from Zimbardo himself. Because he gets a million requests for interviews now, and there's more pressure on him and the field to sort of drop this study finally. And he's now describing the study, like when people say it's like a bullshit experiment and there's methodological problems and ethical problems, he'll say like, ah, it wasn't actually an experiment. It was just a demonstration.
Sarah: Okay, shouldn’t be in textbooks then though.
Mike: Yeah then take it out of the fucking textbook Phil.
Sarah: This is like Michelle Remembers. This is like how in the introduction to Michelle Remembers, the publisher is like, Michelle thinks it's real. And it's like, okay, that answers one of my questions.
Mike: This is what he tells Ben Bluhm in 2019, he says “At this point, the big problem is I don't want to waste any more of my time. After my talk with you I'm not going to do any more interviews about it. People can say whatever they want. It's the most famous study in the history of psychology at this point, there's no study that people talk about 50 years later, ordinary people know about it. It's got a life of its own now. I'm not going to defend it anymore. The defense is its longevity.”
Mike: I know. It's been wrong for 50 years, so that’s cool.
Sarah: Right. He's rejecting the core values of the field in which he claims to work.
Sarah: This seems like a weird anecdotal experiment that just got picked up by the media through combination of self promotion and confirming ideas about humanity that Americans wanted to have in 1971.
Sarah: And the fact that the American media system rewards exciting sounding academic headlines with potentially no meat on them.
Sarah: At all, which I realize headlines don't have meat in any case but I'm sorry.
Mike: So in closing, don't include the Stanford Prison Experiment in your textbook.
Sarah: And if you want to talk about Kitty Genovese, talk about how her death was misrepresented to sell a social agenda that would probably have only made her life worse had she lived.
Mike: Yes. Sarah: And share a cute picture of her in a bar or perhaps sitting on a car.
Sarah: They're both widely available and they show a beautiful living person.
Mike: Yes and if you need to use the word, nevertheless, bump up the fonts. We can all see what you're doing.