The Stanford Prison Performance

Experiments in social science are never fully replicable because humans are never fully replicable. These experiments yield scenarios, not proofs. They show how things could go, not how they invariably turn out. On the flip side, there’s a lot to be salvaged from a deeply flawed psychological experiment. We still get to observe human behavior – provided that we have a reasonably faithful description of what actually happened. In contrast, a single contamination event in a laboratory can send the output of multiple tests right to the shredder. Studying contaminated samples, as a rule, is an exercise in futility.

Had he tried, even tried hard, Philip Zimbardo couldn’t have made his Stanford prison experiment “scientific,” but that grand basement guignol is a funky gift that keeps on giving.

Ben Blum asks, “if Zimbardo’s work was so profoundly unscientific, how can we trust the stories it claims to tell?” Almost any human spectacle is worth studying, an elaborate roleplay no less so than a street fight or a family dinner. It won’t tell stories of and by itself; that’s left to the spectators. Interviewed by Blum, Gregory Feist of SJSU says, “I hope there does come a point… where Zimbardo’s narrative dies… hopefully it will happen. Because I just think it’s a… It is a lie.”

The narrative, not the SPE as such. “This is how people always behave when society assigns them the roles of guards and prisoners” won’t fly. Forget it. Admit that some or most participants felt like performers. “Some of you will play prisoners and others will play cruel guards. Now improvize.” These were the instructions they heard, or perhaps misheard. If so, an acceptable, modestly generalized interpretation could be: “This is how Stanford students behave when paid to play Guards & Prisoners.”

It sounds like a value-adding proposition to me, rather than another dark platitude about humanity. Theater is infinitely interesting.

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