Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Returning to the Stanford Prison Experiment

Ben Blum, in his article The Lifespan of a Lie, sets out to put to rest the findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). He suggests that the reason we have collectively embraced the lesson of the SPE—that environments strongly affect people's moral decisions—is because it lets us off the hook for bad decisions. In other words, we cannot be held accountable for immoral behavior if it was our environment, not ourselves, that caused us to act as we did.

Seemingly at variance with his viewpoint, Mr. Blum goes on to write about an attempted replication of the SPE. Emphasis added by me:

"According to Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher, psychologists who co-directed an attempted replication of the Stanford prison experiment in Great Britain in 2001, a critical factor in making people commit atrocities is a leader assuring them that they are acting in the service of a higher moral cause with which they identify — for instance, scientific progress or prison reform. We have been taught that guards abused prisoners in the Stanford prison experiment because of the power of their roles, but Haslam and Reicher argue that their behavior arose instead from their identification with the experimenters, which Jaffe and Zimbardo encouraged at every turn. Eshleman, who described himself on an intake questionnaire as a “scientist at heart,” may have identified more powerfully than anyone, but Jaffe himself put it well in his self-evaluation: “I am startled by the ease with which I could turn off my sensitivity and concern for others for ‘a good cause.’”"


An important lesson that we can draw from the Stanford Prison Study, Haslam and Reicher's replication, Solomon Asch's experiments on the bandwagon effect, and other studies on social norming, is that people generally conform to what they think they are expected to do, and much more so when that expectation comes from an authority figure. The COG employed the highest and most absolute authority of all, God. Following the words of our "prophet," David Berg, created an upside-down, morally abhorrent, alternative reality within COG Homes and was the root of abuse and exploitation within the cult.


See also, The Power of Ideology.

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