"The Stanford Prison Experiment is one the best known psychology experiments ever undertaken, and its depressing results allegedly confirmed that ordinary people 'can be led to perpetrate atrocities not because they blindly follow orders, but because they conform blindly to what is expected of them as a group member.' Yet, in the first complete retesting of the original prison experiment, Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam came to quite different conclusions, and argued that "it is not valid to conclude that people mindlessly and helplessly succumb to brutality." Instead, they observed, that the available evidence 'suggest[s] that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology.' This is quite different from the point made by the Stanford Prison Experiment -- and other related studies, like Stanley Milgram's work on obedience to authority -- about conformity and human nature. Yes, people do great wrong, but they do so because they truly believe that such actions are warranted, 'because they actively identify with groups whose ideology justifies and condones the oppression and destruction of others.'"
—Michael Barker, 2011.
(Swans - August 29, 2011) Alexander Haslam is professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Exeter. He was an associate editor of the British Journal of Social Psychology from 1999 to 2001 and chief editor of the European Journal of Social Psychology from 2001 to 2005. He is a former president of the psychology section of the British Science Association and currently treasurer of the European Association of Social Psychology. Haslam's recent books include The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power (Psychology Press, 2011; co-authored with Steve Reicher and Michael Platow) and The Social Cure: Identity, Health and Well-being (Psychology Press, 2011; co-edited with Jolanda Jetten and Catherine Haslam). This interview was undertaken by e-mail in May 2011.
Michael Barker (MB): In The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (Rider Books, 2009), Philip Zimbardo notes that prior to undertaking the Stanford Prison Experiment he considered himself to be a "radical, activist professor, against the Vietnam War since 1966," so it is interesting to note that the Stanford Prison Experiment was funded by a government grant from the Office of Naval Research at a time when many antiwar activists (especially those based on his university campus) were challenging the legitimacy of such funding. How do you think Zimbardo rationalized receiving such contentious military funding, and how might the military have benefited from the results of his study?
Alexander Haslam (AH): This is interesting. I have seen him pressed on this point on the BBC program Frontline, and it was an issue that he continually evaded. In it, the interviewer, Stephen Sakur, took the May and Zielinski line that the similarity between events at Abu Ghraib and those in the Stanford Prison Experiment might reflect what the military learned from Zimbardo's work, and (unsurprisingly) he was not happy with this suggestion at all.
MB: Could you explain the theoretical significance of the Stanford Prison Experiment in relation to other related research in the social sciences (both mainstream and radical, i.e., Marxist)?
AH: Insofar as it doesn't really take the issue of resistance seriously, I think the Stanford Prison Experiment's message is seriously out of touch with developments in sociology, political science, and other social sciences. (1) That's a major problem.
MB: Prisoner 8612 (Doug Karlson), who was the first person to leave the experiment owing to extreme stress -- after spending just one night in prison -- was a self-identified socialist and revolutionary activist; Zimbardo also refers to him as an anarchist. What impact do you think that this prisoner's ideological orientation may have had on the experiment?
AH: That's really hard to say, but clearly these things are important (in the same way that the beliefs of the trade unionist were important in our study). It's important to note too though that people's beliefs are transformed in various ways by the dynamics in such contexts.
MB: After prisoner Doug-8612 left the experiment, Paul-5704 took his place as a prominent and rebellious leader of the prisoners. In fact, Paul-5804 wrote to his girlfriend from prison to let her know that he had planned to write about his experience for a radical underground newspaper, as he had discovered that the project was being funded by the military. The writing of this letter led Zimbardo to conclude that Paul-5704 had "hatched a conspiracy theory arguing that we are trying to find out how best to imprison student protestors who are opposing the Vietnam War!" In this regard it is noteworthy that later in his book, Zimbardo draws his readers' attention to a critique of his experiment, which in his words, makes the "claim rather powerfully" that "the SPE's main message of situational power was co-opted by the Pentagon and utilized in its torture training programs..." What are you thoughts on these matters? [The critique Zimbardo is referring to is Gerald May and Alessandra Zielinski, "Psychology and U.S. Psychologists in Torture and War in the Middle East," Torture, 16, 2006.]
AH: This relates to the first question, and I think it is obviously hard to know what the truth is here. What I would say, is that we can't assume (and it seems unlikely) that the only lessons the military learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment were the ones Zimbardo wanted them to.
MB: In what ways do you think that the Stanford Prison Experiment influenced popular conceptions of human nature?
AH: It has both fed into them and drawn off them. When I lecture on this, I sometimes play Pink Floyd's "Us and Them" to show how deeply embedded in our culture the idea that tyranny is normal, and something we can't avoid is. ("God only knows, it's not what we would choose to do.") The point we would make is precisely the opposite: that tyranny is most potent when it is a choice that people have made and a cause they believe in.
MB: Zimbardo has referred to your own prison experiment research as dishonest and fraudulent: why do you think he has been so openly hostile to your research?
AH: Because we had the temerity to challenge his authority. I also think he never expected anyone to conduct an empirical study that would have the same impact as his, and that this was the source of a certain amount of identity threat.
By the same token, I think we were completely shocked by his reaction. We felt that if we worked to get our work in scientific journals (which we have been reasonably successful in doing) then that is where the debate would take place. On reflection, this was rather naïve, but this is still the strategy we are pursuing. We still believe that it is by bringing data and ideas to the table -- rather than slinging mud -- that progress will be made.
MB: In recent years have there been any other studies that have cast a more critical light on some of the findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment?
AH: Yes, but the point about the BBC study -- and what makes it so potent (and such a problem for Zimbardo) is that it takes Zimbardo on in his own terms. In particular, it shows that people don't conform blindly to role and that tyranny emerges from active identification with a tyrannical leadership (as it did in the Stanford Prison Experiment).
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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work. (back)
1. For example, see Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher, "Beyond the Banality of Evil: Three Dynamics of an Interactionist Social Psychology of Tyranny," (pdf) Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 2007, pp.615-622. (back)