Wait, What?! The Stanford Prison Experiment was pre-tested?

With the recent news regarding the questionable nature of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, we thought it was purdent to republish one of our earlier blog articles drawing attention to the issue. The piece below appeared on our blog in 2012. 

A blogpost by the Neurocritic suggests that the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) was based on a pre-test in which participants behaved equally cruel. Job van Wolferen summarizes this post and highlights another disturbing point the Neurocritic raises: the experimenters might have given the guards ideas and suggestions on how to treat the prisoners.

If you are not familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment here's a quick summary: Philip G. Zimbardo randomly assigned students to be guards or prisoners and locked them in a basement at Stanford University. Things got out of hand. Some of the guards treated the prisoners really badly and the experiment was terminated prematurely. Info here and related videos here. Nice summary of all the criticisms of the SPE here.

First things first: This blog post by the Neurocritic refers to some ‘Letters to the editor’ at Stanford Magazine. In those letters, a person named Tom Jordan corrects Zimbardo’s statement that the SPE all started with ‘an ad in the classifieds’. According to Tom Jordan, the SPE started had been preceded by a pre-test that was ran by David Jaffe. 

As one of the guards, I can attest to the same feelings of desensitization and turmoil experienced by participants in the subsequent larger study. I remember well denying medication to a student who had forgotten to list it on her medical requirements form. I remember, too, that Jaffe's experiment was called off well before the target date, as prisoners and guards alike began to fray at the edges. It was the startling results of this pilot project of David's that I believe provided the impetus for the larger Stanford Prison Experiment.

I had never heard about the existence of a pre-test and it certainly raises questions about the ethicality of the SPE. The Neurocritic’s blogpost goes on with information about Zimbardo both saying that he did not know what to expect going in to the SPE, but also not denying the existence of a pilot-project.

If a pre-test with equally disastrous outcomes has indeed taken place, it would be bad in and of itself. It renders the SPE highly unethical. However, it does not affect the seriousness of the results. The main conclusion from the experiment is that people might do horrible things to other humans when put in a position of power.

The Neurocritic also highlights a letter that was posted by Carlo Prescott. The link to the website where the letter was originally posted somehow 'broke' in the past two weeks but you can find a reprint if you scroll down on this page. In this letter (most important parts in block quote below), Carlo Prescott explains that he is an ex-prisoner who helped out during the experiment. He unambiguously states that he instructed the guards to act the way they did.

To allege that all these carefully tested, psychologically solid, upper-middle-class Caucasian “guards” dreamed this [ed. the nasty things they did to prisoners] up on their own is absurd. How can Zimbardo [..] express horror at the behavior of the “guards” when they were merely doing what Zimbardo and others, myself included, encouraged them to do at the outset or frankly established as ground rules?

I think the possibility that the guards in the SPE might have been instructed to treat the prisoners as badly as they did raises questions about the strength of the findings. Still, one could argue that some ex-prisoner telling students to treat other students badly does not invalidate the fact that the guards did some nasty things to the prisoners. That is true, but it sure makes the SPE findings a lot less dramatic than what I think most people take them for.

The exact details of what instructions Carlo Prescott gave to the guards and how badly the pre-test got out of hand remain unclear. I tried to find Carlo Prescott's and Tom Jordan's email adresses to get more information on what exactly happened. However, I could not find their email address on the web. If you know or are Carlo Prescott or Tom Jordan, please get in touch. I would be curious to learn more about what exactly happened. Also, please feel free to discuss the extent to which a pre-test or instruction by an ex-prisoner affect the Stanford Prison Experiment's results and interpretations below!