The Zimbardo Experiment

I began my Research Methods graduate seminar this year by showing two videos of classic experiments, the Stanley Milgram Obedience to Authority experiment from 1961 and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. Both raised troubling issues, not only in their findings but in the nature of the experiment themselves.

It is unlikely that they would be permitted to be run today (though in fact the Milgram experiment has been replicated a few times elsewhere). Both are mentioned in the Belmont Report as stimulating a more responsible conduct for research, centered around respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.

Zimbardo’s prison experiment, which notoriously had to be cut short after 6 days of a planned 2-week long experiment due to the students suffering breakdowns, is especially relevant today. Healthy young male participants were randomly assigned to be either prison guards (and were issued billy clubs, military style uniforms) or prisoners (assigned numbers and dress-like smocks) and they quickly adopted either sadistic or passive behaviours. Where there was resistance, the guards issued punishments, including homophobic and sexually demeaning postures, placed paper bags over prisoner’s heads and so on. Zimbardo himself has often pointed out the parallels to Abu Ghraib.

Zimbardo made the case recently on the TED Talks that it’s not so much about bad apples as that the barrel is bad, or the makers of the barrel. That is, badness (or evil as he terms it) is not a property but a process or experience. By contrast, there is the hero. The hero is the one who acts not ego-centrically but socio-centrically, who resists the “15 volt” temptations. (15 volts was the first level of shock that subjects in the Milgram experiment administered to their “victims”, actually confederates of the experimenter. Roughly 2/3 of subjects continued to the end, labeled 450 volts.)

This idea of the one who steps out, who knows deviance in order to do good is not unproblematic (who gets to define heroism, good and evil?). But it is remarkably reminiscent of the Wikileaks situation. After Wikileaks published leaked documents on Iraq, including the Collateral Murder video, a private in the US Army, Bradley Manning, was charged with espionage and is now being held in Quantico. He faces more than 50 years in prison. You can read more here.

To me this also raises the question of what we as geographers do in relation to authority, government, and politics. Open Geography, the blog and the concept, stand for increased openness and accessibility to information and intelligence. There are many who place limits on this, counselling caution and unintended consequences (the Pentagon said Wikileaks had blood on its hands). At the moment, these voices prevail in the media (and the traditional media itself).

I’m still struggling through with some of this. Shortly I wish to post a summary of what I had to say at a panel session at this year’s AAG meeting organised by the Office of the Geographer at the Department of State on how geographers can advise government on foreign policy. In some ways this is a continuation of the Human Terrain Systems (HTS) debate , and the Mexico Indigena (Bowman Expeditions) controversy in geography. Whatever else, can you deny their liberal intent: that knowing more about these cultures is better for foreign policy than knowing less?

Of course this is not a defense of HTS and Bowman. In fact it makes the classic Enlightenment error of aspiring to a pure knowledge without reckoning with power and politics (Pres. Obama makes this error all the time; he thinks if only he could get reasonable educated men and women in the room he could achieve bipartisan agreement).

Scholarship usually sees itself as centering on knowledge. But how then must it deal with power and politics?


One response to “The Zimbardo Experiment

  1. Pingback: Some Interesting Bits (a) « Never Engage in Polemics

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