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Replication in Psychology Experiments: Everything We Know is a Lie

The famous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by a team led by Philip Zimbardo is a classic, taught in introductory psychology classes and referred to by laymen all over. Student volunteers were divided into the roles of prison guards and prisoners, and those assigned as guards became cruelly abusive as they explored their power over their fellow students. But more recent research and interviews with the participants revealed that things were not exactly as published. The "guards" were coached in their cruelty, and the students considered the experiment to be a performance.  

Though most guards gave lackluster performances, some even going out of their way to do small favors for the prisoners, one in particular rose to the challenge: Dave Eshelman, whom prisoners nicknamed “John Wayne” for his Southern accent and inventive cruelty. But Eshelman, who had studied acting throughout high school and college, has always admitted that his accent was just as fake as Korpi’s breakdown. His overarching goal, as he told me in an interview, was simply to help the experiment succeed.

“I took it as a kind of an improv exercise,” Eshelman said. “I believed that I was doing what the researchers wanted me to do, and I thought I’d do it better than anybody else by creating this despicable guard persona. I’d never been to the South, but I used a southern accent, which I got from Cool Hand Luke.”

Eshelman expressed regret to me for the way he mistreated prisoners, adding that at times he was calling on his own experience undergoing a brutal fraternity hazing a few months earlier. “I took it just way over the top,” he said. But Zimbardo and his staff seemed to approve. After the experiment ended, Zimbardo singled him out and thanked him.

Some of the "prisoners" also admitted to role-playing during the experiment. Others attempted to replicate Zimbardo's study, and achieved different results. Those studies didn't get the press that the original experiment got -and some say that's because Zimbardo interfered with their publication. The Stanford Prison Experiment isn't the only psychological experiment that doesn't hold up over time. We recently posted about how the Robber's Cave Experiment was retooled to attain the desired results. The same investigator found irregularities in Stanley Milgram's experiments in the willingness of subjects to obey authority even when that means harming others. Even the famous Marshmallow Experiment has been discredited by replication studies. Vox has an overview of famous but discredited psychology experiments, and the difficulty of correcting textbooks and the popular image of these studies. -via Digg

(Image credit: Eric. E. Castro)

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