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Was the Stanford Prison Experiment a sham? A Q&A with the writer who exposed the celebrated study

Original post made on Jul 1, 2018

In his sharply-reported article, "The Lifespan of a Lie," journalist Ben Blum lays out why the Stanford Prison Experiment and its supposed conclusion could be bogus.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Sunday, July 1, 2018, 8:14 AM

Comments (7)

Posted by AJL
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2018 at 9:50 am

Huh. Interesting. I think there is definitely an aspect of human nature that wants to believe anything with an urban legend ring to it, that's what makes urban legends. I wonder if anyone has studied what makes a good urban legend or can share that, and how it may be relevant here?

My favorite example of that in medicine would be the placebo effect. Some researchers in Germany in the '90s took a much more methodical look at the evidence and found that placebo effect research was characterized mostly by "sloppy methodological thinking" -- people wanted to believe what they wanted to believe about it.

So, ironically, people's beliefs about the placebo effect were more at issue than what happened physiologically because of people’s beliefs in treatment, which turns to be mostly a myth. A Danish group did a really thorough study in which they identified the published studies with good enough data since the introduction of the placebo effect, in which there were three groups: a group that got treatment, a group that got a placebo intended to mimic treatment, and a group that got nothing. They compared the placebo groups to the groups that got nothing (no treatment, no expectations of treatment) and found that there is no significant clinical effect associated with placebos.

Placebo effect study designs often lump in anything that isn't a treatment effect -- such as researcher biases, patient reporting biases, normal course of a disease, independent effects of placebos (which aren't always just sugar pills), belief in treatment, etc -- but then the results in studies involving placebos are then often interpreted just as having resulted from belief in treatment. We now know the latter simply doesn’t cause significant physiological changes. The problem is that the belief in treatment interpretation captures that urban legend popular imagination and just won't die, even in many scientific circles, despite so much strong scientific evidence that it's not correct.

So, the placebo effect -- as defined as significant physiological effects resulting from belief in treatment (or belief in negative effects from treatment) -- is largely a myth. Isn't that ironic? It's not that placebo trials are unnecessary, because placebos are needed to separate the effects of treatment from all kinds of other effects and biases, but the idea that people can through belief in treatment make major physiological changes just isn't supported by the evidence. The Danish researchers did another major study of every trial involving three groups after their original research was published and found the same thing.

I cannot judge whether this book is correct or not based on just this article. But this is a very interesting claim about it and I am interested in learning more. I really wish I could look at all sides here with a better understanding of the urban legend phenomenon, too, and why some beliefs so stubbornly hang on in popular imagination despite almost incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.


Posted by Longtime Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2018 at 2:37 pm

Amazing how many news stories, facts and data, delivered to us with authority in its day, have been proven to be incorrect, today.

Most amazing is some people knew of the falsehoods, yet remained quiet, allowing the public to be bamboozled.


Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2018 at 3:32 pm

Another way to view this is that there is currently a healthy trend towards more robust results and reproducibility.. One take on this can be found in the cartoon xkcd:

Web Link

Here is a serious article on the general subject in Nature:

Web Link

Regarding the famous Stanford Prison Experiment: "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." We now have IRBs and Human Subjects Committees and such. Don't expect to see the Zimbardo and Milgram experiments "reproduced".

Web Link

Instead, as suggested in the article, new research will bring better insight into how these aspects of human psychology work. And, I would like to hope, perhaps these new insights can help us build better political structures in the future.


Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 2, 2018 at 12:42 am

>> In reporting based on recent interviews and newly-released documents, Blum explains that Zimbardo and his assistants essentially choreographed much of the behavior, ...

I guess that means much like violence is choreographed with dead bodies, violence, war, terrorism, guns and retribution hundreds of time a night on TV and in the movies?

It just seems like there is data from these experiments, closed data to most of the public, that can be used to invet and develop some pretty nasty technology, as in Abu Graib or maybe wherever we have no heard about yet. Since we see that the majority of human behavior studies in the US seem to be applied towards manipulating people to buy something or do something maybe we should rethink the way we look and study human behavior and how that is put to use, more reliably then hooking people on drugs.


Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 2, 2018 at 1:29 am

Attend a City Council meeting.


Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 3, 2018 at 4:32 pm

> I think the most seductive feature of the Stanford Prison Experiment is
> its ability to diffuse away all moral accountability.

Ain't that the truth ... all the way to the top now. Seems like a lot more
research is needed on how to put in transparency and checks and
balances. At least our Founding Fathers were thinking in the right
direction. Some people are very clever at corruption and creating
disorder. Shouldn't anti-corruption and watching the watchers be
something important that we all should be thinking about? Seems
like these days governments are sitting ducks.


Posted by placebo effect
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 5, 2018 at 11:43 am

Interesting information above. I wonder whether the desire to believe in the placebo effect is similar to the desire to believe that there is a supernatural entity that watches over us and rewards believers.

Despite overwhelming evidence that innocent populations suffer, and over the centuries innocent people starve or are killed, die in floods, etc. some people still think there is a beneficent guardian who dispenses justice.

Believe, and the placebo effect will work? No it won't.


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