Was Stanford Prison Experiment Flawed?

Image: Jdec
Image: Jdec

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, during which students were divided into “guards” and “inmates,” and the guards soon began to treat the inmates horribly. But according to BPS Research Digest (hat tip to William Rinehart):

New details to emerge show that Zimbardo played a key role in encouraging his “guards” to behave in tyrannical fashion. Critics have pointed out that only one third of guards behaved sadistically (this argues against the overwhelming power of the situation). Question marks have also been raised about the self-selection of particular personality types into the study. Moreover, in 2002, the social psychologists Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam conducted the BBC Prison Study to test the conventional interpretation of the SPE. The researchers deliberately avoided directing their participants as Zimbardo had his, and this time it was the prisoners who initially formed a strong group identity and overthrew the guards.

But even if all the criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment are true, it’s still the case that “one third of guards behaved sadistically” at Zimbardo “encouragement.” That still says something very important about the human capacity to mistreat other people.

Psychology and Harry Potter’s Scar

I have a new video out briefly explaining my take on Harry Potter’s scar, which connects Harry to Voldemort. We should not view this is some sort of original sin, but instead as our psychological potential to let ourselves be overtaken by bitterness and rage to the point that we betray our values.

Update: On July 13, eSkeptic published my article, “Religion in Harry Potter.” This week eSkeptic published “Harry Potter and Jesus Christ,” Tim Callahan’s review of Harry Potter Jesus Christ. I will address this later; for now I will say merely that I’m underwhelmed. But read my article and the new one and see what you think.

Check out my book, Values of Harry Potter.

D’Anconia Warns Against Repression

Recently I read Francisco d’Anconia’s monumental speech about the virtue of money in Atlas Shrugged (pages 387-391 in my Signet 35th Anniversary Edition). In answer to someone who quips that “money is the root of all evil,” d’Anconia argues that the root of money is production, and the root of production is the reasoning mind. It is a speech well worth perusing, and it is often discussed.

On this reading, I was equally struck by the discussion that d’Anconia holds with Hank Rearden immediately after the speech. I have heard the claim that Atlas Shrugged encourages emotional repression. However, Ayn Rand presents some of her heros as emotionally repressed precisely to point out why that’s a problem. Rearden mentions some “fool woman.” D’Anconia replies:

That woman and all those like her keep evading the thoughts which they know to be good. You keep pushing out of your mind the thoughts which you believe to be evil. They do it, because they want to avoid effort. You do it, because you won’t permit yourself to consider anything that would spare you. They indulge their emotions at any cost. You sacrifice your emotions as the first cost of any problem. They are willing to bear nothing. You are willing to bear anything. They keep evading responsibility. You keep assuming it. But don’t you see that the essential error is the same? Any refusal to recognize reality, for any reason whatever, has disastrous consequences. There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think. Don’t ignore your own desires, Mr. Rearden. Don’t sacrifice them. Examine their cause. There is a limit to how much you should have to bear. (page 394)

So, Rand points out, emotionalism, letting one’s emotions guide one’s life without rational oversight, stems from essentially the same error as emotional repression. That error is evasion, the pushing out of one’s mind relevant knowledge or questions. Because Rearden tends to evade certain types of facts, he becomes emotionally repressed. This leads him to actively help those who are trying to tear him down and to damn his own desire for romantic sex. In presenting emotional repression in certain characters, Rand is exploring the roots of such repression so that it can be overcome.