Challenging the conclusions drawn from Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment

Alex Haslam: “The invitation to design the ‘most important experiment that’s never been done’ is an interesting one, but one that entails a great many dangers. One of these is that by inviting researchers to focus on experiments per se, it encourages them to forget that the fundamental purpose of experiments is to test theoretically derived ideas. Really, then, the question should be ‘what is the most important theoretical idea that has never been empirically challenged or supported?’ An answer to this question needs to be informed by an analysis of both (a) ideas that dominate the field but which are misleading, and (b) ideas which offer an alternative, superior understanding. In my own field of social psychology, there are a great many candidates for (a), but relatively few for (b). In this regard, I would assert that the most important class of ideas that need to be challenged in our understanding of social life are those which lead us to believe that social problems encountered in the world at present (e.g. tyranny, prejudice, abuse, discrimination) are the ‘natural’ manifestation of inherent processes (e.g. evolutionary, socio-biological, or social psychological). The most important studies are therefore those which take influential studies that appear to support such ideas, and turn them on their heads.

In this regard, one study that I would like to conduct would involve using the paradigm of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE, Haney et al., 1973) as the basis for a study showing that, under certain conditions, people (e.g. prisoners) can resist oppression as well as commit and fall victim to it — thereby challenging the idea that tyranny is an inevitable consequence of assigning people to powerful and powerless roles. In fact we were given the opportunity to design and conduct just such a study several years ago (the BBC Prison Study — BPS; Reicher & Haslam, 2006). The findings to this both (a) challenged received models of tyranny, (b) supported an alternative analysis (derived from social identity theory; Tajfel & Turner, 1979), and (c) bore striking resemblance to patterns of resistance displayed in real-life prisons (and elsewhere in society).

The problem here, though, is that because our findings diverged markedly from those of Zimbardo, he (and others) assumed that the study must have had an inherent design flaw. Of course, as an experiment the study had certain limitations (e.g. lack of a control condition, small sample size) that it would be good to try to address in follow up research. Indeed, it would be great to conduct an experiment which resolved this debate conclusively. Such a study might involve two conditions with multiple prisons in each: in one, the prisons would recreate and replicate patterns of tyranny observed in the SPE; in the other a relevant manipulation would heighten shared social and political identification among the prisoners while weakening that of the guards in order to show that, over time, this was a basis for resistance of the form displayed in the BPS (and in prisons like Robben Island and the Maze; Buntman, 2001; McEvoy, 2001).

Here again, though (as we have found out), there is a danger in thinking that the resolution of such matters is only ever an empirical issue — a question of ethics, resources, and careful design. These things are important, but ideology, politics, group memberships and vanity also have a role to play. You can lead an experimentalist to data, but you can’t always make them think. The most important experiments are those which make such disengagement harder, and which encourage fresh minds to change the world not just reproduce it.

Dr Alex Haslam is Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter, UK.

8 thoughts on “Challenging the conclusions drawn from Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment”

  1. The conclusion that I drew from the Stanford Prison Experiment is that people can be induced to act in antisocial and psychopathic ways. The combination of anonymity and eau de official sanction, both combine beautifully in certain bureaucracies, creates an environment where this is more likely. (I think he calls them ‘vectors’ or something.) It doesn’t have to be ‘tyranny’; it could be just as simple as a lack of empathy. I think a trip to the DMV can illustrate this pretty efficiently.


  2. I read an article in JPSP less than a year ago which showed some evidence that the SPE was the result of participant self-selection. That individual’s who signed up to participate in “a study examining prison life” were dispositionally higher on such traits as Right Wing Authortarianism and Social Dominance Orientation (I think?). I see that Haslam is an editor for JPSP and given your intense experience in this area, I am sure you’ve heard of these studies. So then, this kind of has been done already, no?


  3. While not being recognized as an academic expert in social identity theory, I do have some relevant field research with clients who, as owner-operators of organizations with 25-75 employees engage my coaching services, which rely on psycholinguistics heavily to augment the resources of my long experience as an engineer, manager, management consultant, leadership coach, and writer, to solve seemingly intractable problems of economic survival.

    At first sight, research with entrepreneurs on the subject of our capacities to resist tyranny may seem outside of the real issue of serious oppression. But if we recognize that in many respects, economic life is a series of giant incentive-driven structures in which each of us has an opportunity to lessen the more ghastly forms of oppression that build as an inevitable outgrowth of crazy incentives at the financial tops, then the relevance of this research begins to become apparent.

    The psycholinguistic that fueled my research is one I invented in the early 90s. It is the “I have X emotion now” (IHXEN) linguistic. (We pronounce IHXEN as Eye-Zen).

    I selected this linguistic as the base for a series of what my associates and I now call rational emoto-linguistics, and my reasons for doing so are briefly set out at the following URL:

    Working with this linguistic at intermittent coaching moments in which the stakes involved in an impending decision were very high, my clients begin to recognize what I had previously discovered in less socially influential circumstances. This is that, after an exchange of authentic IHXENs, the parties would invariably discover that we had refined our intuitions on some issue into what we later verified was reliable insight. The theoretical basis for this obviously widely useful result are not appropriate for me to set out here. But the bottom line results may be of interest to many.

    The most socially positive results of my coaching use of IHXENs occurred in the setting of a 45-employee enterprise in which the founding owner-operator was able to get (1) a decisive ($3 million) movement toward settlement of a $10 million debt overdue for 3 years from a fat-cat utility run by unconscienably ignoring executives; and (2) buy-in of 90% of employees to a long-tabled Employee Share Ownership Pan of 90% (by contrast with a US average, then and probably still, of approximately 35%). The surprised relief amongst everyone concerned (including all 45 employees) when these results of my coaching of the client who obtained these results was palpable and very gratifying.

    A fuller narrative of this experiment, plus links to related testimonials, and a description of the theory of why IHXENs produce such relief-generating insights is available at:

    Angus Cunningham
    President, Authentix Coaches
    Toronto, Ontario, Canada


  4. Got any peer reviews of your propositions there, Mr. Cunningham?

    Have you been independently published after competent review anywhere?

    Summary: Subjectively based soft-science, self-promotion, that's about all.


  5. I see a major design flaw in not having conducted a truly quasi-experimental design with a proper treatment group/ control group comparison. The problem was that in the SPE the guards were not briefed properly and all we left to a 'let's wait and see what happens' unstructured attitude. The experiment would have concluded so much more if we had one group based on rigid role-behavior versus another group based on communicative and interactive-cooperative behavior. Having only a single group to measure leaves the SPE open to much critique as it leaves us with too many open ends.


  6. I wrote a book rehearsing what would be the opposite effect to Zimbardo’s experiment, but to do that, I studied his experiment, I also worked in prisons many years ago and I can say that although Zimbardo is not 100% right, he says things that Can be verified in reality. It should be borne in mind that Prison is a situation in which, regardless of the personality that an individual presents, it is a hierarchical situation, which induces someone to be “up” and someone “down”, that can not be denied and Affects behavior. Another thing is how we react to that reality. Yes there is induction of negative behaviors although we can discuss how they are. “Heroic Imagination” is the antidote Zimbardo built for the Lucifer Effect.


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