From this point of view, there is nothing in the results of the study that should surprise us. Once we say that the guards humiliated and oppressed the prisoners because they were told to do that and felt it was important to do it for the sake of science, and once we say that the prisoners initially “rioted” because they felt that this is what they were supposed to do but later really did want out because they were humiliated and oppressed, what is there left to be surprised about? Did Zimbardo and his colleagues really need to do this experiment to “prove” such an obvious result? And does this really tell about the behavior of real guards and prisoners, who are not there for a two-week experiment (for the good of science), but are there because that is how they make their living or because they are being punished for a crime? There is no way to simulate the real experiences of being a guard or a prisoner.
Too often, in our psychological research labs, we trivialize reality. Zimbardo’s prison experiment is a good example of that. If I had included Zimbardo’s experiment in my textbook, it would have been to make that point."
The sociology of science is quite interesting; important studies get spun and mythologized over decades, leaving out important details. I’ve taught and been taught about the Stanford prison experiment dozens of times over my near-decade in the psychology world, and I’d never heard before this article that Zimbardo laid out rules about what guards could not do to prisoners (and in the process, suggested things they COULD do). It essentially ruins the whole study to know that these young men began the experiment with a planted idea of what they were supposed to be doing.
I do think there’s some value left in this study, if not for the original conclusions the authors drew. I almost always teach this in the context of research ethics. I saw an interview with Zimbardo and his wife, Christina Maslach, where they describe how Maslach came to visit the experiment a few days in. She was actually the one who convinced Zimbardo to call it off, and he admits that he only did so because she was so upset about it and threatened to break up with him. I’ve used this as an example to students that even if you think your own research is producing interesting, novel results, you MUST look at the bigger picture and stop it immediately if people are being harmed.
Zimbardo’s continuation of the study, as well as the behavior of the guards (whether or not they were behaving naturally, as Zimbardo might claim, or behaving in accordance with what they thought the experimenters wanted, as Peter Gray argues in his article), are great examples of the power of the situation. This, and the Kitty Genovese story (which also turns out to be grossly misrepresented), suggest that people can be quite thoughtless and selfish in grim situations. Upon hearing these stories, students always say, “But I would never do that!” And I tell them that’s the key — that most people think they wouldn’t act that way if they were in a bad situation, but that time and again there are studies that are extremely unethical, or situations in which people very reliably exhibit the bystander effect. The important thing to take away from this is that it could happen to you, and having that knowledge will hopefully lead you to reconsider your intuitions in bad situations and realize that you ARE the bystander, or the unethical experimenter, and stop what you’re doing before it’s too late.
At a bare minimum, it should become more of a norm that science writing be done by people who have training in science. Many of the public engagement jobs I’ve seen posted for museums and even universities list among their requirements a degree in journalism, but only rarely do they prefer an applicant with a science background (let alone a PhD). I have a lot of admiration for science reporters who are not trained in the sciences, and I think they provide important perspective from outside of the field, but there are inevitably facts they may miss by (1) not being directly engaged in the world in which the research happens, or (2) being less familiar with the field’s background.