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Ethics and morality, Social and behavioural

Debate about ideas, not about personalities

Professors Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher release a joint statement with the Stanford Prison Experiment researchers Craig Haney and Philip Zimbardo.

28 August 2018

The parties in a controversy over the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment have called for an 'open and respectful' debate.

In the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), ordinary young men were divided into prisoners and guards in the basement of the university. Quickly, behaviours became so toxic that the study had to be ended early. Ever since, the study has been used to show how easily people slip into role, even if that turns them into brutes.

In recent months, however, new information about what happened in the study has provoked an impassioned debate not only within the academic world but also in the media, given the significance of the study not only to researchers but also to everyday understanding of brutal behaviour in prisons, other institutions and the world at large.

The new information suggests that the traditional accounts of the SPE underplay the extent to which the experimenters intervened in the study, that their leadership was critical to the emergent brutality of the guards and that people may not so easily slip into roles as was once thought.

Professor Stephen Reicher, Wardlaw Professor in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at St Andrews, said: 'At times, this debate has overstepped the boundary from a robust battle of ideas to personal abuse. Not only is this wrong in itself, it also impedes advances in our understanding of why and when human behaviour turns toxic.'

Now, Philip Zimbardo and Craig Haney, who conducted the SPE, have come together with Professor Alex Haslam (University of Queensland) and Professor Reicher, whose BBC Prison Study also considered how ordinary people turn brutal and who have played a key role in reinterpreting the findings of the SPE, to issue a joint statement. It welcomes the new information about the SPE and calls for an open and respectful debate about its implications.

Haslam said: 'When we conducted the BBC Prison Study, our main ambition was to reopen scientific debate around one of the most important issues of our time: how ordinary people can act in extraordinarily brutal ways. The new information about the SPE which has recently become public provides an unprecedented opportunity to develop debate. We must not squander that opportunity by turning a debate about ideas into a debate about personalities.'

Reicher added: 'In the past, debate about the Stanford Prison Experiment was limited by the small amount of information available about what happened. Now, online archives make that information available to all. So everyone can enter the debate about how behaviour turns toxic. In today’s scientific community, where transparency is a priority, that is open science in action. It is something we think will be welcomed by ourselves, the signatories, but by the entire scientific community.'

The statement recognises 'that our studies, results, and public statements have engendered strong debate and, at times, misunderstanding within and beyond psychology. In an effort to promote constructive scientific dialogue, we are therefore releasing this consensus statement to highlight common ground and clarify our views on the research in question.'

The signatories say that 'It is only natural that explanations of social behavior will be complex and multifactorial'; that they 'believe in open science and welcome the public release of information that aids in the interpretation of these and other studies'; and that they 'encourage others to investigate, discuss, and teach about the roots of toxic behavior and effective ways to prevent it.'

The statement concludes: 'we regret instances in which our statements appeared to involve ad hominem criticisms or used intemperate language. Although it is legitimate to debate the accuracy, comprehensiveness, and meaning of research reports, we have no definitive evidence that any signatory of this statement committed scientific fraud or deliberately misled others about their research findings. … we hope that future discussions and debates about our research and other studies of toxic behavior will be open, collegial, and respectful of differing points of view.'

The full statement is available here.