Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Crooked Timber of Psychological Man

A quick note:

Pocket referred me to this article about Philip Zimbardo's infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment today.  It's very much worth reading.  I wrote a post on an interview with Zimbardo some years ago, and found a lot wrong even with his official account of the experiment.  That much of the official account was actually lies is startling, but I don't think it has much effect on my critique; some of the article even confirms my suspicions.

For example, I wrote that Zimbardo "played his own role to the hilt, probably as he'd learned it from old movies," and that he "seems to have relished playing The Warden from a Jimmy Cagney movie while the game lasted."  I also suggested that, far from spontaneously creating their roles as tough guards and prisoners, the student subjects were also drawing on cultural cues they'd grown up with:
Plus, as my reference to old movies suggests, we've grown up seeing these roles played, even practiced them in "play" as children. (In a smart review of the 1990 movie version of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, an allegory of Original Sin and innate human depravity in which pubescent boys are stranded on an island without adults and turn into Savages, Gary Giddins pointed out that the boys were not blank slates: they knew from stories and TV shows and movies how Wild Indians and African Savages were supposed to behave, and followed the script.) By the time we are adults we've had two decades of training in exercising and submitting to authority.
 It turns out that at least one of the student guards was studying acting, and treated the experiment
as a kind of an improv exercise,” Eshelman said. “I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do, and I thought I’d do it better than anybody else by creating this despicable guard persona. I’d never been to the South, but I used a southern accent, which I got from Cool Hand Luke.”
Also, one of Zimbardo's main assistants "explicitly corrected guards who weren’t acting tough enough, fostering exactly the pathological behavior that Zimbardo would later claim had arisen organically."

It's fascinating to learn how much Zimbardo has lied about the project over the years, and I'm inclined to view his claim that he regrets its prominence in his public reputation as a lie too, since he worked long and hard to publicize it and to block criticism from colleagues, including a replication of the experiment that came up with very different results.  It makes me more inclined to doubt the validity of his later work, including a trendy book in the downtrodden-males genre.

There's much more to the article, and it's worth reading.