The New Yorker has one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the Stanford prison experiment – the notorious and mythologised study that probably doesn’t tell us that we ‘all have the potential to be monsters’.
It’s a study that’s often taught as one of the cornerstones of psychology and like many foundational stories, it has come to serve a purpose beyond what we can confidently conclude from it.
Was the study about our individual fallibility, or about broken institutions? Were its findings about prisons, specifically, or about life in general? What did the Stanford Prison Experiment really show?
The appeal of the experiment has a lot to do with its apparently simple setup: prisoners, guards, a fake jail, and some ground rules. But, in reality, the Stanford County Prison was a heavily manipulated environment, and the guards and prisoners acted in ways that were largely predetermined by how their roles were presented. To understand the meaning of the experiment, you have to understand that it wasn’t a blank slate; from the start, its goal was to evoke the experience of working and living in a brutal jail.
It’s a great piece that I can probably do little to add to here, so you’re best off reading it in full.
Link to The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
2 thoughts on “Context Is the New Black”
Excellent article, although I don’t understand why the fact that the experiment was constructed in a way that manipulated people towards certain types of behaviour, would tell us that in general most people might be less capable of horrendous acts. Real world events clearly show us how easy it is to turn normal people into killers in unusual situations. Evidently it takes a framework that makes them perceive their acts as justified, but it is shocking to see how usually normal people take up their new roll without serious coercion. So, the experiment was flawed, and conclusions were exaggerated, but the fact that behavior can be manipulated in such a short timeframe towards brutality is not very hopeful. But studies of real life situations have shown this time and time again already.
Well, what this study still stands for is how people simply don’t have anything that might be called a “personality”, i.e. something static that is merely expressed differentially in different contexts (unless the bounds of that thing are dissolved to the point where it loses its usefulness anyway).
Some of the conclusions that have been drawn were too strong, but that’s what happens with so many studies that the media cover. How many overinterpreted neuro studies have we all seen written where what the an article says is not at all supported by the study that its about.
(An odd thing in this case though is that the unsupported conclusions would hold, had the conditions just been narrowed down to the actual circumstances that elicited this behaviour in some of the inmates.)