The Lifespan of a Lie
Ben Blum
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“But if Zimbardo’s work was so profoundly unscientific, how can we trust the stories it claims to tell? Many other studies… illustrate the profound effect our environments can have on us [or] how prone we are to obedience in certain settings. What is unique, and uniquely compelling, about Zimbardo’s narrative of the Stanford prison experiment is its suggestion that all it takes to make us enthusiastic sadists is a jumpsuit, a billy club, and the green light to dominate our fellow human beings.”

Right and wrong.

If you actually look into it, you will find that scientific impact of the SPE was pretty marginal (when compared to Milgram’s or Asch’s s studies, look at the citation networks). The core assertion — that “environments can have profound effects” on people — was already well-established by the time the SPE rolled in. There are no claims in the theory of social psychology that hinge their value on the SPE. The general observation that there are situative and systemic causes to people’s behaviors holds and is still demonstrated in many ways by the SPE, but methodological criticism is kind of besides the point. Any psych undergrad can tell you that it wasn’t a “good” experiment, but it really doesn’t matter. Why?

Because the true value of the experiment and Zimbardo’s work is and has always been the tenacious story that has helped spread this observation — that situations matter — to the broadest possible audience. It’s value is cultural, and we need such a story, because people still want to believe that all behavior can be explained away by an agent’s personality or brain or genes or whatever. The SPE is by far the best such story there is. Asch’s isn’t that well-known. Milgram’s study is so utterly mangled in its retellings that it tends to lose its point (because Milgram did 18 variations on his obedience study, not just one, which is critical to deliver its message). The SPE is one of the enduring narratives that remind people about the power of situations and systems (the historical account of the Holocaust, which provoked much of this research, is arguably the most powerful).

And just to preempt any accusations of this being a lie/historically inaccurate: most famous stories from the history of science (and many other domains) are historically inaccurate or outright fabrications. Newton probably didn’t get hit with a falling apple, but this has no impact on physics. These stories serve to teach a point. It is well and good to criticize the point or the effect of the story (which you also did), but it’s pretty meaningless to debate whether the story or its basis is “true”.