Monday, April 02, 2007

Social psychology: The Stanford Prison Experiment revisited

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a classic in demonstrating how nice (as opposed to good) people can act in evil ways in a situation where social sanctions encourage them.

Lead experimenter Zimbardo explains how it came to be stopped, when it was getting far out of control, by - his girlfriend - a complete outsider:
It is terrible what YOU are doing to those boys!" she yelled at me. Christina made evident in that one statement that human beings were suffering, not prisoners, not experimental subjects, not paid volunteers. And further, I was the one who was personally responsible for the horrors she had witnessed (and which she assumed were even worse when no outsider was looking). She also made clear that if this person I had become — the heartless superintendent of the Stanford prison — was the real me, not the caring, generous person she had come to like, she wanted nothing more to do with me.

That powerful jolt of reality snapped me back to my senses. I agreed that we had gone too far, that whatever was to be learned about situational power was already indelibly etched on our videos, data logs, and minds; there was no need to continue. I too had been transformed by my role in that situation to become a person that under any other circumstances I detest — an uncaring, authoritarian boss man. In retrospect, I believe that the main reason I did not end the study sooner resulted from the conflict created in me by my dual roles as principal investigator, and thus guardian of the research ethics of the experiment, and as the prison superintendent, eager to maintain the stability of my prison at all costs. I now realize that there should have been someone with authority above mine, someone in charge of oversight of the experiment, who surely would have blown the whistle earlier.

Experiments like Zimbardo's no longer conform to ethics guidelines, of course. Zimbardo, understandably, sees the solution as recognizing the extent to which people are creatures of their environment, but - while that is true to some extent - it ignores Solzhenitsyn's hard-won insight that the line between good and evil passes through the human heart. Most people are simply not as good as they think, and that fact is a very traditional spiritual insight.

The whole Zimbardo thing reminds me of something that happened in, I think, 1970, in Canada, in the university town where I was studying English literature. A psychology professor was running a sleep deprivation experiment at a shopping plaza (there was a fundraising component, I think). One of my roomies volunteered for it. I was a bit worried, but what can you tell a fellow college kid?

Anyway, four days into it, I had a severe migraine, but was seized with the sudden conviction that I ought to go see what was happening to my roomie anyway.

How I found my way to the shopping plaza, I don't remember. The truth is, I could hardly see. So there were the two of us: she was up on the platform, obviously far gone from sleep deprivation with badly swollen eyelids, and I was resting on the sill, staring up at her through mere slits of eyes, one of the walking migraine dead.

But I turned and stared hard - despite the pain! - at the psychologist. I really wanted to know. To me, the woman seemed like a sort of fish, alert, with yellow eyes. I couldn't understand why she couldn't see the suffering she was inflicting on the students, but perhaps a fish would not.

I stayed a while, but sensed I was doing no good, so I wandered, somehow, back to our student squat and awaited the outcome.

A short whole later, psychiatrists at a local mental health centre phoned the psychologist and told her to end the experiment or else. (Perhaps one of them had come to visit and seen what I had seen?)

Anyway, I came away with the view that research ethics committees are, in general, a good thing.
Check out The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary (Harper 2007).

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