Interview With Famous Psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, Designer of the Stanford Prison Experiement

If your interested in learning about situational influence, the fundamental attribution error, and the psychology of obedience this interview is for you.

Phil Zimbardo Background (via Believer Mag)

Dr. Zimbardo is professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University. I met him at his house just off the zigzagged portion of Lombard Street in San Francisco. Over scones and tea, looking out onto the bay, we discussed the prison experiment and its implications for ethics, responsibility, free will, and social policy. This interview has been abridged from the full version, which will appear in A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, to be published next month by Believer Books.

Introduction (via Believer Mag)

Put yourself in the following situation. You’ve agreed to participate in a Yale University study that explores the use of punishment to aid learning and memorization skills. You’re randomly assigned the roll of “teacher”; the “learner” is strapped to an apparatus in the next room and given a series of memory exercises. Your task as the teacher is to press a lever that sends an electric shock to the learner every time he answers a question incorrectly. The shocks increase in intensity for every incorrect answer—up the scale from level 1 (15 volts) to level 13 (195 volts, marked “Very Strong Shock”) to level 25 (375 volts, “Danger—Severe Shock”), ending at level 30 (450 volts, marked “XXX”). The learner you’ve been paired with is not doing well. He’s making a lot of mistakes and has begun complaining about the pain from the shocks. You check with the experimenter and he assures you that it’s OK to continue. Still more mistakes. Now the learner screams in pain at every wrong answer. He begs you and the experimenter to let him out. He complains about a heart condition. You’re up to level 13 now, 195 volts, labeled “Very Strong Shock.” You don’t want to continue, but the experimenter reminds you that you agreed to do this and claims that he will take full responsibility for whatever happens. The learner screams that they have no right to keep him here. The experimenter asks you firmly to keep going.

What would you do in this situation? Would you take a stand and walk out? Or would you keep pulling the levers, all the way up the scale, past the point where the screaming from the other room has turned into silence….

Many readers will recognize this description as a portrait of the famous Milgram experiments. (For those unfamiliar with the study, the “learner” was really an actor, a confederate of the experimenter. The experiment was in fact a study of obedience to authority figures. The shocks were not genuine.[1]) Conducted in the 1960s, the Milgram experiments presented a deep challenge to American ideas about the power of individual character and free choice. In a follow-up study, Milgram asked subjects to predict how far up the shock scale they would go in this kind of situation. Subjects replied, on average, that they would refuse to continue after level 10. Nobody said that they would go as far as level 20, and when asked to predict the behavior of others, subjects imagined that only 1 to 2 percent would go all the way to level 30. A group of forty psychiatrists, after hearing about the experiment, agreed with this assessment. After all, only a sadist could repeatedly electrocute an innocent stranger just because a psychologist told him to, right?

Wrong. Both the psychiatrists and the subjects were way off. As it turned out, two out of every three subjects went all the way up to level 30, sending what they believed were 450 volts into the learner in the next room. And once they passed 330 volts, when the learner had stopped screaming and fell silent (unconscious or dead perhaps), almost no one stopped until the end. Either two thirds of the Connecticut population are sadists, or bucking authority is much more difficult than we imagine.

The Milgram study is one of the twin towers of experiments in the “situationist” tradition, studies that reveal the extent to which our circumstances and environment influence human behavior. The other is an equally controversial study known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. A former classmate of Stanley Milgram’s at James Monroe High School in the Bronx, Dr. Zimbardo wanted to study the effects of a prison environment on human behavior. He gathered a group of college students, randomly divided them into “prisoners” and “guards,” and placed them in a simulated prison at Stanford University. What followed is discussed at some length below; for now, it’s enough to say that the behavior was so unexpectedly brutal and dehumanizing that the experiment—designed to last two weeks—had to be cut short after only six days. So when Zimbardo heard about the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and then saw the notorious photographs, he says he was not surprised. He had seen this pattern of abuse before—the sexual humiliation, naked prisoners with bags over their heads—in his own simulated prison! And when the Bush administration depicted the abuses as the actions of “a few bad apples,” Zimbardo could say with some authority that a “bad barrel”—the twelve-hour shifts without a day off, fatigue, stress, ambiguous orders from above, the systematic lack of leadership, and the prison itself—was likely the more important contributing factor. After hearing him interviewed on NPR about the scandal, the lawyer for Chip Frederick, one of the guards at Abu Ghraib, asked Zimbardo to serve as an expert witness for the defense. And this experience prompted him to write a book, The Lucifer Effect, about the Abu Ghraib abuses, the power of situational elements to influence behavior, and, for the first time ever, a detailed, reflective, and fascinating account of the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted almost forty years earlier.

Interview Excerpts (via Believer Mag)

THE BELIEVER: I take it that one of the goals of the Stanford Prison Experiment was to build on Milgram’s results that demonstrated the power of situational elements. Is that right?

PHILIP ZIMBARDO: It was really to broaden his message and put it to a higher-level test. In Milgram’s study, we don’t know about those thousand people who answered the ad. His subjects were not Yale students, although he did it at Yale. They were a thousand ordinary citizens from New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut, ages twenty to fifty, and in his advertisement in the newspaper he said: college students and high-school students cannot be used. It could have been a selection of people who were more psychopathic. For our study, we picked only two dozen of seventy-five who applied, who on seven different personality tests were normal or average. So we knew there were no psychopaths, no deviants. Nobody had been in therapy, and even though it was a drug era, nobody (at least in the reports) had taken anything more than marijuana, and they were physically healthy at the time. So the question was: Suppose you had only kids who were normally healthy, psychologically and physically, and they knew they would be going into a prison-like environment and that some of their civil rights would be sacrificed. Would those good people, put in that bad, evil place—would their goodness triumph?

BLVR: But as it turned out…

PZ: Even when we preselect for intelligent, normal, healthy young men, that doesn’t minimize the power of the situation.

Click Here To Read The Full Interview With Famous Psychologist Philip Zimbardo

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05. September 2009 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Psychology & Sociology | Leave a comment

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