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Playback returns this week with an investigative showdown. Journalist Ben Blum looks into the reality of the most famous psychology study to ever be conducted, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and makes some shocking discoveries himself.
You might remember it from Psych 101: In 1971, young Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo gathered male participants from Bay Area colleges and assigned them as either prisoners or guards. He kept the prisoners in a mock prison in a basement at the university called “Stanford County Jail,” had the guards watch over and discipline them, and served as warden. The experiment was called off early when Zimbardo’s girlfriend came by to visit six days in and insisted that he end it. Nevertheless, Zimbardo shook 1970s America with the finding that anybody, regardless of background or morality, can behave terribly given the right (or rather, wrong) circumstances.
But what if the roles assigned in the Stanford Prison Experiment were just that? Parts in a play? Through interviewing participants as well as Zimbardo himself for the June issue of our magazine, Ben comes to find that maybe Stanford County Jail was more of a theater than a replication of real life. Ben even looks back on his own cousin Alex’s arrest for robbery: “For Alex’s sentencing hearing, his defense team called on a prominent expert to argue that his involvement in the robbery was due not to his own free will but to powerful ‘situational forces’: Dr. Philip Zimbardo. Alex received an extraordinarily lenient sentence, and Dr. Zimbardo became a family hero.” But was Alex really saved by Zimbardo? Was the Stanford Prison Experiment even real? Should it be taught to psychology students — or do we need a different basis upon which to view those who commit crimes as worthy of compassion?
Listen to Ben perform the essay (2:30), along with music and sound design, as well as archival audio from the actual experiment and his interviews, then chat with host Manoush Zomorodi (45:05)about the trouble with generalizing the results of psychology experiments, Zimbardo’s standing in Ben’s family’s lore, and his own past as a scientist. (View the show credits.)
Ten Questions with Ben
At what time of day do you do your best writing?
Morning for the gruntwork, late night for the inspiration
Where do you do your best writing?
Far, far away from the Internet
What’s your favorite word in the English language?
Best true crime story you’ve heard or read recently?
President Trump’s Twitter feed
Next place you want to travel?
South Korea, where my adoptive brother and sister were born
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
What Really Matters by Tony Schwartz — a record of his efforts to spiritually detox after being around Donald Trump for a year while ghostwriting Art of the Deal. Highly relatable.
What’s your favorite podcast?
Serial, first season. So flawed, so unrepeatable, so totally captivating.
Guilty pleasure TV show?
“MasterChef Junior” with my six-year-old
What prediction for the future are you most excited about??
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, at which humanity unites in global consciousness
What prediction for the future are you most terrified of?
Robot soldier dogs