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Famed Stanford prison experiment that shows we naturally abuse power was based on LIES

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Famed Stanford prison experiment that claims to show we are all naturally inclined to abuse power was based on LIES, recordings reveal

  • The small experiment is one of the most famous psychology studies of all time
  • Participants were assigned to be inmates or guards in a mock prison at Stanford
  • The guards quickly began mistreating inmates suggesting we are innately cruel
  • New report shows guards were trained to be cruel and that one inmate faked a fit of madness during the study 

By Harry Pettit For Mailonline

Published: 05:02 EDT, 14 June 2018 | Updated: 06:23 EDT, 14 June 2018

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One of the most famous and influential psychology studies of all time was based on lies, new recordings reveal.

The Stanford prison experiment purported to show we are all naturally inclined to abuse positions of power, but a new report reveals the research was a sham.

But new recordings found in Stanford archives of the study's author Professor Philip Zimbardo shows guards were encouraged to treat inmates poorly.

In an interview one prisoner admitted to faking a fit of madness that the study reported was driven by the prison's brutal conditions. 

The revelations have sent scientists into uproar, with some calling for the experiment and its findings to be wiped from psychology textbooks worldwide.

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One of the most famous psychology studies of all time was based on lies, new recordings reveal. Participants in the study were assigned to be inmates (left) or guards (right) in a mock prison. The condition of the inmates quickly deteriorated
One of the most famous psychology studies of all time was based on lies, new recordings reveal. Participants in the study were assigned to be inmates (left) or guards (right) in a mock prison. The condition of the inmates quickly deteriorated

One of the most famous psychology studies of all time was based on lies, new recordings reveal. Participants in the study were assigned to be inmates (left) or guards (right) in a mock prison. The condition of the inmates quickly deteriorated

The experiment has been cited in many scientific textbooks, and is the subject of a number of documentaries, television series and even a feature-length film.

Its author, Stanford psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo, claimed to show that innocent people will almost always abuse a position of power.

Prisoners were treated as second class citizens - they were made to wear women's clothing, not allowed to wear underwear, and only referred to by a number.

One inmate broke out in a psychosomatic rash upon finding his 'parole' had been turned down, while another famously suffered a breakdown in his cell, screaming 'I'm burning up inside!'

Guards were reportedly so cruel to inmates that the experiment had to be cut short after just six days of its planned two-week duration.

'The Stanford Prison Experiment is often used to teach the lesson that our behaviour is profoundly affected by the social roles and situations in which we find ourselves,' author and scientist Dr Ben Blum wrote in a report posted to Medium.

'But its deeper, more disturbing implication is that we all have a wellspring of potential sadism lurking within us, waiting to be tapped by circumstance.'

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The Stanford prison experiment purported to show we are all naturally inclined to abuse positions of power, but a new report reveals the research was a sham. Guards (pictured) were given  sunglasses to prevent anyone from reading their emotions, promoting their anonymity
The Stanford prison experiment purported to show we are all naturally inclined to abuse positions of power, but a new report reveals the research was a sham. Guards (pictured) were given  sunglasses to prevent anyone from reading their emotions, promoting their anonymity

The Stanford prison experiment purported to show we are all naturally inclined to abuse positions of power, but a new report reveals the research was a sham. Guards (pictured) were given sunglasses to prevent anyone from reading their emotions, promoting their anonymity

The revelations have sent scientists into uproar, with some calling for the experiment and its findings to be wiped from psychology textbooks
The revelations have sent scientists into uproar, with some calling for the experiment and its findings to be wiped from psychology textbooks

The revelations have sent scientists into uproar, with some calling for the experiment and its findings to be wiped from psychology textbooks

Professor Simine Vazire, a psychology researcher at the University of California, Davis, said she was 'embarrassed' her field treated the study's author as a hero
Professor Simine Vazire, a psychology researcher at the University of California, Davis, said she was 'embarrassed' her field treated the study's author as a hero

Professor Simine Vazire, a psychology researcher at the University of California, Davis, said she was 'embarrassed' her field treated the study's author as a hero

Dr Blum looked into previously unpublished recordings of Professor Zimbardo and interviewed the psychologist's participants.

He found that one of the study's most famous moments, in which a 22-year-old inmate broke down in distress at his treatment in the prison, was faked.

Student Douglas Korpi, now 57, admitted he feigned a psychotic breakdown because he wanted to quit the experiment to study for his exams.

'Anybody who is a clinician would know that I was faking,' he told Blum.

Run by psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo (pictured) the study explored the destructive behaviour of groups of men over an extended period
Run by psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo (pictured) the study explored the destructive behaviour of groups of men over an extended period

Run by psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo (pictured) the study explored the destructive behaviour of groups of men over an extended period

The guards quickly began mistreating their prisoners, according to the experiment, suggesting that cruelty is driven by circumstance. This image shows a distressed inmate during the experiment 
The guards quickly began mistreating their prisoners, according to the experiment, suggesting that cruelty is driven by circumstance. This image shows a distressed inmate during the experiment 

The guards quickly began mistreating their prisoners, according to the experiment, suggesting that cruelty is driven by circumstance. This image shows a distressed inmate during the experiment 

WHAT WAS THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT?

The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most famous psychology studies of all time.

Run by psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo, the study explored the destructive behaviour of groups of men over an extended period.

Students were randomly assigned to be either guards or prisoners within a mock prison constructed in the Stanford Psychology Department.

The objective was to observe the interaction within and between the two groups in the absence of an obviously malevolent authority.

The results proved shocking, with the abuse handed out to the prisoners by the guards so brutal that the study had to be terminated after just six days.

Despite its status as one of the most influential psychology studies ever published, the Stanford prison experiment has come under much criticism.

Several attempts to replicate the study have yielded disparate results, leading some scientists to suggest the study was faked.

In June 2018, author and scientist Dr Ben Blum interviewed participants of the 1971 research, and uncovered recordings of its author, Professor Zimbardo.

Dr Blum said the experiment's guards were trained to act cruelly to their subordinates, while one prisoner admitted to faking a fit of madness.

'If you listen to the tape, it's not subtle. I'm not that good at acting. I mean, I think I do a fairly good job, but I'm more hysterical than psychotic.'

Kopri added that he largely enjoyed the experiment and did not feel threatened because he know the guards weren't allowed to harm him.

'There were no repercussions. We knew [the guards] couldn't hurt us, they couldn't hit us. They were white college kids like us, so it was a very safe situation,' he said.

'It was a job...I was being a good employee. It was a great time.'

Dr Blum also reveals that Professor Zimbardo told guards to rile up prisoners, suggesting their cruelty did not bloom naturally from their position of power.

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A number of people took to Twitter to denounce the Stanford prison experiment following the recent revelations
A number of people took to Twitter to denounce the Stanford prison experiment following the recent revelations

A number of people took to Twitter to denounce the Stanford prison experiment following the recent revelations

'We cannot physically abuse or torture them,' Professor Zimbardo told them in a meeting before the experiment began, according to recordings.

'We can create boredom. We can create a sense of frustration. We can create fear in them, to some degree… We have total power in the situation. They have none.'

One guard told Dr Blum that he pretended to be a sadist, and acted cruelly in a way that was later reported as an organic product of the power dynamics at play. 

'I took it as a kind of an improv exercise,' he said.

The experiment has been cited in many scientific textbooks, and is the subject of a number of documentaries, television series and even a feature-length film. New York University scientist Jay Van Bavel pointed out that the falsified study has had far reaching influences
The experiment has been cited in many scientific textbooks, and is the subject of a number of documentaries, television series and even a feature-length film. New York University scientist Jay Van Bavel pointed out that the falsified study has had far reaching influences

The experiment has been cited in many scientific textbooks, and is the subject of a number of documentaries, television series and even a feature-length film. New York University scientist Jay Van Bavel pointed out that the falsified study has had far reaching influences

'I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do.'

The guard added that he later regretted treating inmates poorly, though Professor Zimbardo had thanked him on his way out of the test.

'He made it a point to come and let me know what a great job I’d done,' he said.

'I actually felt like I had accomplished something good because I had contributed in some way to the understanding of human nature.'

Several attempts to replicate the Stanford prison experiment have failed to recreate its dramatic results, leading some scientists to suggest the study was faked.

The research presents little in the way of concrete data, largely relying on testimonies from those involved in the study.

Professor Zimbardo has admitted he was an active participants in the experiment rather than a neutral observer, meaning he exerted influence over its results.

He also handed the guards batons, which may have predisposed them to consider physical force as an acceptable means of enforcing good behaviour.

Scientists took to Twitter to denounce the Stanford prison experiment following Dr Blum's recent revelations.

Professor Simine Vazire, a psychology researcher at the University of California, Davis, said she was 'embarrassed' her field treated the study's author as a hero.

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'We must stop celebrating this work. It’s anti-scientific. Get it out of textbooks,' she wrote.

'It’s also irresponsible in many other ways (socially, politically). I’m embarrassed that my field treated this work and this man as heroic.'

New York University scientist Jay Van Bavel pointed out that the falsified study has had far reaching influences.

He tweeted: 'The Stanford Prison Experience - as it is presented in textbooks - presents human nature as naturally conforming to oppressive systems.

'This is a lesson that extends well beyond prison systems and the field criminology - but it’s wrong.'

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