Like any self-reflective adult, I like to believe that the beliefs I hold are based upon facts, not other beliefs. I spent a long time between the ages of 18 and 25 working to come to what I thought were defensible beliefs, beliefs based upon objective reality (as much as possible), rather than what I wished were true about the world. (I believe this so strongly, I am in the midst of writing a ridiculously long piece about what I consider “adult” beliefs in 2018.) Further, I tell myself that, when confronted by facts that contradict my beliefs, I will change my beliefs, even though I know that human beings don’t generally do this.
Well, last night, I read something that demonstrated that one of the social psychology experiments I have based a core belief on is a lie.
Since I first read it 13 or so years ago, the interpretation of the Stanford Prison Experiment as presented in The Lucifer Effect by Phil Zombardo has been one of the pillars of my set of supposedly rational beliefs. The book made such an impression on me that I had it on my list of most important/essential books I’ve ever read literally up until this morning. But last night I discovered that Zimbardo’s version of the Stanford Prison Experiment is false. It’s a lie. (It’s worth noting that many people have known this for a long time, but I wasn’t aware of the methodological criticism or the fact that Zimbardo has been caught falsifying what actually happened. The only criticism I was aware of was the moral criticism, that the experiment was morally wrong.)
Before I talk about what I learned from the experiment, I should mention I never took psychology in university. I have spent the time since I left grad school reading about psychology as I felt like my education sorely lacked a grounding in (up-to-date) psychology. I took political theory, and basically every single political theory I studied lacked an adequate, modern theory of the person, simply because they were all rooted in knowledge of human beings in the 18th and 19th centuries. So psychology has helped me a lot, helping me to move away from normative philosophy’s bizarre conception of the world in ideal terms, to more practical ideas based, I hoped, on actual reality.
I took the following from The Lucifer Effect:
- The “will,” if it exists, is not as strong as we think it is
- Individual choice, even when it feels completely rational, is bounded and conditioned, usually by things we are completely unaware of in the moment (and sometimes unaware of for years after)
- Social roles shape our behaviour more readily than we are willing to admit
- Social relationships shape our behaviour more readily than we are willing to admit
- Institutions are full of unseen or misunderstood power structures – involving roles and relationships – which shape our behaviour more readily than we are willing to admit.
I did not make some of the more ridiculous conclusions that some people did based upon the experiment. Conclusions such as “prisons don’t work” or “human beings cannot be held responsible for their actions” did not seem legitimate to me. Despite reading The Lucifer Effect, I wasn’t fully aware that people were making these conclusions.
To the extent that Zimbardo has helped get criminals off with his work, this is a big problem. But I don’t know how many cases he’s testified in. (Despite the lying, I want to believe that some of what happened is still applicable to Abu Graib, though I don’t know how applicable it is to robbing banks…)
But the criticism against Zimbardo and his version of the experiment that it has been widely misinterpreted isn’t entirely fair, in my mind, even though Zimbardo lied. The reason I say that (I hope) is because every psychological study (and nutritional study) is misinterpreted by the general public. The vast majority of people who read about these studies in news reports (which are often just rewritten press releases or using another journalist’s interpretation of the study) already do not know enough to make conclusions. It isn’t Zimbardo’s fault that some people have taken his “results” to extremes. It is his fault that he lied. And it is his fault that he continues to perpetuate the lie.
And this is where I’m stuck. I believe that plenty of social and evolutionary psychology experiments in the interim have reinforced my beliefs about social and systemic facts at play in human behaviour. They may be far less extreme than Zimbardo would have us believe, but they are still there. But now that I know about the lack of rigour in the Stanford Prison Experiment, I worry about how many other experiments have lacked this rigour. Now that I know how much Zimbardo and his assistants attempted to shape the results by telling the participants how to behave, and then denied doing it afterward, I wonder to what degree that happens in all social psychology. Now that I know participants have admitted to acting during the study, I wonder how often that has happened in other experiments, such as the experiments I am using for the basis of my next book.
It’s like I just tripped over something but nobody was watching. I caught myself and didn’t land on the ground, but I’m not sure it won’t happen again in a more embarrassing way. Worse, I have been telling everyone this is the right and only way to walk.
What do I do now?