The Zimbardo myth

PrisonA recent post on the BPS digest looks at 10 of the most widely believed myths in psychology - specifically at research results that have been questioned. One of these relates to Zimbardo’s well-known Stanford Prison Experiment. The main conclusion Zimbardo drew from the study was that certain situations will cause people to behave in an anti-social way (a bad barrel creates bad apples). The prison guards became brutal because of the situation they were placed in. It seems that many textbooks, especially American introductory texts, overlook the challenge that has been made regarding this conclusion by UK psychologists Steve Reicher and Alex Hallam. In their BBC prison experiment they showed that the same situation can lead to cooperative behaviour rather than tyranny, depending how people identify with each other.

My view is that this doesn’t challenge the original finding but extends it. In addition Zimbardo’s phrase ‘bad barrels and bad apples’ was intended as a criticism of whose responsibility it was – he was arguing that it was not the guards ‘fault’ that they became ‘bad apples’ but was the fault of the organisation who created the ‘bad barrel’.

One Comment

  1. Keith E Rice August 20, 2016 at 5:37 pm #

    Thanks for this, Cara.

    One thing that has always struck me about Zimbardo and, more recently, Reicher & Haslam is that the conclusions of both studies play down – to the point of all but ignoring it in Zimbardo’s case – the dispositional factors clearly at play.

    The ‘John Wayne’ guard admits in filmed interview that unambiguously he set out to give Zimbardo the dramatic effect he perceived him to want. One man attempting to manipulate the situation is clearly dispositional.

    Reicher & Haslam, to some extent at least, expected the trade union negotiator introduced as a prisoner on Day 5 to make some kind of difference – which he certainly did. Again, dispositional.

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