Friday, July 8, 2011

Stanford Prison Experiment: where are they now?

The July/August issue of the Stanford Alumni magazine features a retrospective on the Stanford Prison Experiment which took place 40 years ago this summer. In addition to the expected Q&A with "warden" Philip Zimbardo, the article includes interviews with co-researcher Craig Haney, Christina Maslach (the graduate student/girlfriend of Zimbardo who was the "whistleblower"), two guards and one prisoner.

In the interviews I found some interesting comments. One of the guards, Dave Eshelman, called "John Wayne" because of his sadistic behavior, denied that the situation provoked cruelty from him. Rather, he says, he was actively playing a part:
"What came over me was not an accident. It was planned. I set out with a definite plan in mind, to try to force the action, force something to happen, so that the researchers would have something to work with. After all, what could they possibly learn from guys sitting around like it was a country club? So I consciously created this persona. I was in all kinds of drama productions in high school and college. It was something I was very familiar with: to take on another personality before you step out on the stage. I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, "How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, 'knock it off?'" But the other guards didn't stop me. They seemed to join in. They were taking my lead. Not a single guard said, "I don't think we should do this."
Another guard, John Mark, takes Zimbardo to task for what he sees as Zimbardo's claim that events just happened by themselves:
"During the day shift, when I worked, no one did anything that was beyond what you'd expect in a situation like that. But Zimbardo went out of his way to create tension. Things like forced sleep deprivation - he was really pushing the envelope. I just didn't like the whole idea of constantly disturbing people and asking them to recite their prisoner numbers in a count. I certainly didn't like when they put a guy in solitary confinement ... I didn't think it was ever meant to go the full two weeks. I think Zimbardo wanted to create a dramatic crescendo, and then end it as quickly as possible. I felt that throughout the experiment, he knew what he wanted and then tried to shape the experiment—by how it was constructed, and how it played out—to fit the conclusion that he had already worked out. He wanted to be able to say that college students, people from middle-class backgrounds—people will turn on each other just because they're given a role and given power. Based on my experience, and what I saw and what I felt, I think that was a real stretch. I don't think the actual events match up with the bold headline. I never did, and I haven't changed my opinion."
Richard Yacco, who was one of the prisoners, now teaches at an inner city high school in Oakland. He makes some intriguing comparisons between the SPE and the lives of his students, and expresses frustration with how the "power of the situation" impacts them:
"But what frustrates my colleagues and me is that we are creating great opportunities for these kids, we offer great support for them, why are they not taking advantage of it? Why are they dropping out of school? Why are they coming to school unprepared? I think a big reason is what the prison study shows—they fall into the role their society has made for them."
I would love to do a longer interview with Yacco, but can't find an e-mail for him at the moment. If anyone else can, please let me know in the comments.

Zimbardo, for his part, seems to be working hard to be known for more than just "the prison experiment guy." Last year on THSP I described his work with the Heroic Imagination Project, and just last week he was interviewed on NPR on the same subject. But really - after 21 years on PBS stations and in countless high school and college classrooms - isn't he also very well known as the host of Discovering Psychology? That alone should be his claim to fame!

--posted by Steve


Rob Mc said...

GREAT write up Steve! Thanks! Any psych teachers out there in the Oakland area? Anyone know Mr. Yacco?

Mr. Hallquist said...

I found this on his school's website:

Anonymous said...

IT WAS 40-YRS AGO TODAY... join Dr. Zimbardo in an intimate and exclusive retelling of the Stanford Prison Experiment across the course of the next six days @