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Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment

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Psychology and Crime News has this great post about the famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Briefly, the question posed is whether those who would volunteer to participate in a prison study are somehow unique, and thus, would bias the results. The answer is yes:

Volunteers for the prison study scored significantly higher on measures of the abuse-related dispositions of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and lower on empathy and altruism, two qualities inversely related to aggressive abuse. Although implications for the SPE remain a matter of conjecture, an interpretation in terms of person-situation interactionism rather than a strict situationist account is indicated by these findings. Implications for interpreting the abusiveness of American military guards at Abu Ghraib Prison also are discussed.

The Situationists would have us believe that most behavior is determined by the situation a person is in and not their character or personality. The end product of such thinking is that most of us would engage in behavior X given the right circumstances. Yet, that position must overcome mountains of empirical research on personality and genetics. Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment shows us just how important sample characteristics are and why many social psychology studies suffer because they rely so heavily upon psychology undergraduate students.

4 Comments

Your text is misleading: "Volunteers for the prison study" weren't the Stanford kids, but rather the students used in the new study.

Of course, the conclusion is correct. Those who want power shouldn't have it.

The quote is taken from the link; but I believe the volunteers were undergraduate students and the experiment was at Stanford.

No, there's no information on the Stanford volunteers, as the article notes. Also, both of the authors are at Western Kentucky University (at Bowling Green, KY, I believe), so I doubt the new experiment was run in Palo Alto.

"Carnahan and McFarland couldn’t test this theory using the SPE data, and instead re-ran the volunteering part of the study to see what sort of people would volunteer for a two week study ‘of prison life’, compared to those volunteering for a study described in an identical manner but with the ‘prison life’ bit taken out.

You do read the articles you post, don't you?

Again, the quote YOU are referring to is a quote from the study. Yes, I do read the studies, and yes, the original study was conducted at Stanford. That's what I was referring to. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_Prison_Experiment

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