Obeying Authority | Unethical Psychology

Obeying Authority | Unethical Psychology

Old school psychology is a lot of fun. Learning about the old experiments where they’d
trick the participants into doing something silly is probably the first thing that hooks
people. It’s even more fun when you can spot those
effects in the real world… You just flinched, didn’t you? Congratulations, you’ve just been conditioned,
there won’t be any more beeps after this, you can adjust your volume. Pavlov’s Dog, Skinner’s Box, and even
social experiments on conformity, where a participant knowingly gives the wrong answer
in order to fit in with all of the wrong people around them are hilarious and interesting
enough that they’re taught in every Intro Psych class. But some of these fun, early psych experiments
have a bit of a controversial side… This video was brought to you by Skillshare. Psychology as a field has existed in some
form for as long as people have been thinking about thinking. But modern interest in psychology really took
off after World War 2. Partially because millions of new people,
whether they be veterans or children of veterans, were just starting to get into college and
every school and department was growing. But they also wanted to explain the Nazis. Psychology as a field really wanted to know
how or why the Holocaust could have occurred if people are generally “good?” And could it happen here? The general opinion in America and the rest
of the west at the time was that no, it could not have happened here. Americans are fundamentally good and would
never do that. It wasn’t until a few studies came out in
the 60s and 70s that that assumption was challenged. The first major one was by Stanley Milgram. You know who Milgram is, even if you don’t
know his name, you’re aware of his research. He’s the one who came up with Six Degrees
of Separation. He called it the Small World Phenomenon, and
before the internet, he tested and figured out that you are connected to any other person
on Earth by an average of six links. So a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend
of a- He also studied the idea of the Familiar Stranger and planted lost letters around various
cities to see who would mail them. But he’s most famous for a study he conducted
in 1961. He ran eighteen different variations of this
test, but the general story goes like this: Two participants would show up to the office,
these were not college students, but people from the community. Grocery store clerks, bankers, electricians,
normal everyday people. Other versions of the test also included women
and people of color. The experimenter would greet them and inform
them that this was a study on memory and learning, they wanted to see if punishment can be just
as powerful of a motivator as a reward. So rather than getting something for being
right, you were punished for being wrong. One of the participants pulls a role out of
a hat to determine who is the Learner and who is the Teacher. The learner is then strapped into a chair
in a separate room with a speaker and four buttons, but no microphone. The teacher returns to the main room with
the experimenter, and their job is to recite word pairs to the learner, like blue sky and
young boy. Later, the learner is asked to remember the
pair, they’re presented with the word, blue, and then several multiple choice options,
which include sky. When the learner inevitably gets something
wrong, they are given a shock by the teacher. These start at 15 volts, which isn’t much
more than licking a 9volt battery, but the more they get wrong, the higher the voltage,
all the way up to 450 volts. The teachers are often surprised that without
a microphone, they can hear the learner protesting through the walls. Wrong, answer is neck. 300 volts. AHHHH!!! In some cases, the learner stopped responding
entirely. This caused a few teachers to question whether
they should continue, but ultimately, of nearly 800 participants, two-thirds of them end up
giving the non-responsive learner multiple 450-volt shocks. None of the learners successfully memorized
all of the word pairs. That’s the version of the story you would
have been told if you were a participant, if you’re at all familiar with psychology,
you were probably pulling your hair out. Sorry about that, but some deception was necessary. As was the case with Milgram, who was actually
studying obedience to authority. In truth, one of the participants was a confederate,
someone working with the experimenter. The roles were not randomly assigned, the
actual participant was always the teacher. The learner wasn’t actually hooked up to
anything and was never being shocked, the word pairs didn’t matter at all. What they were really testing was whether
or not the teacher would apply what they believed to be a lethal shock to someone when told
to continue by an authority figure, a scientist in this case. Oftentimes, the participant would protest,
but they were verbally urged to continue. I mean who’s going to take the responsibility
if something happens to that man? I’m responsible if anything happens to him. Continue please. Alright, next one, slow. Across all of the different variations of
his experiment, two-thirds of people flipped the final switch, while the other third quit
somewhere along the way. Zero people got up to physically check on
the learner. Because a person dressed as a scientist told
them to continue, most average, everyday Americans, including women, would at the very least torture
someone with a few painful electric shocks, even if they didn’t go all the way. That was unsettling news for most Americans. Nazi war crime trials were going on at the
same time and many of them used the defense that they were just following orders. And now we have a study saying most Americans
would just follow orders too. Almost immediately after publication, procedural
and ethical questions were raised about Milgram’s experiment. They only did it because they were pressured
to. Well yeah, that was the variable being tested,
when someone wanted to stop and they weren’t told to continue, they stopped. They lied to participants about what they
were testing. If you’re told that this is a study on whether
people do terrible things when instructed by an authority figure, you aren’t going
to act normally are you? The deception was necessary. The participants thought they killed someone. …. Yeah. Every participant was debriefed and the learner
came out to show that they were okay – not only were they not dead, but they were never
being shocked in the first place. They even interviewed the participants years
later and found no lasting psychological damage. But… still. The participants now know that if something
as simple as a wire were connected, they would have killed someone, they flipped the switch
thinking they did. They didn’t, and they know they didn’t,
but they would’ve. And while none of the participants reported
any lasting mental trauma, knowing that about yourself can really change your perspective. Milgram’s study, as he performed it, probably
wouldn’t happen today. But his results have been replicated, under
modern ethical conditions, dozens if not hundreds of times – it’s pretty well-established
science. And in the end, his study did follow ethical
guidelines for the time. Psychology was an emerging field and while
they did have review boards, they were still figuring out what the boundaries were. Milgram’s study was approved by an IRB. As was another famous study which pushed some
limits a decade later, known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. As we’ll get to, even calling it an experiment
is controversial. The usual story is that Dr. Zimbardo took
a group of ordinary college kids and randomly assigned them to either be a guard or a prisoner
in a mock jail in a basement. The guards were given uniforms, sunglasses,
and billy clubs, the prisoners wore smocks and chains, and were each assigned a number. Before long, the guards had turned sadistic,
abusing the prisoners and having them perform a number of degrading tasks. The experiment got so out of hand that Zimbardo
shut it down after only six days. That’s the TLDR version you’ll find in
most intro to psychology textbooks and it’s the version that Zimbardo has made a career
out of telling. Usually as a way of discussing the power of
the situation over the individual. Just like Milgram’s experiment, criticism
of the ethics and procedure came out almost immediately and has been in the background
ever since. So, it also serves as an example to discuss
ethics in science. But unlike Milgram’s experiments, there
are some serious questions about whether the Stanford Prison Experiment is scientific at
all. And the criticisms have reached a boiling
point. A few years ago, a movie was made about The
Stanford Prison Experiment, called The Stanford Prison Experiment, based on Zimbardo’s account
of events – he even served as an advisor for the film. As far as I can tell, the movie is reasonably
accurate. A few characters are composites of different
people and a few of the events are combinations of things that took place separately, but
for the most part it stands up. What I found most interesting about the movie
is that if you’re aware of the criticism, you’ll see it in the movie, it’s touched
upon several times. But if you only know the textbook story, you
might miss it. The first major issue is something called
Selection Bias, in Milgram’s experiment, the participants were a representative cross-section
of society, everyday normal people. The Stanford Prison Experiment was not. Zimbardo put an ad in the paper, reading… Male college students needed for psychological
study of prison life. Fifteen dollars per day for one to two weeks
beginning August 14th. You may not think it, but this is loaded with
information that skews the pool of potential subjects. Male college students are fine, it’s not
representative of the population as a whole, but it is for a prison population. And the ad specifically says this is a study
about prison life – so only people who have some sort of interest in prisons, positive
or negative, are going to apply. Likewise, this is a two-week study near the
end of summer. So, you’re only going to get unemployed
college students with free time and an interest in prisons – which is not a representative
sample. Seventy students applied and were put through
a battery of psychological tests and interviews to find the most stable, and quote normal,
students. They narrowed the list to 24, set aside six
as alternates, and divided the remaining 18 students by coin flip into the prisoner or
guard roles. So far so good, while the selection process
only yielded a specific type of person, there shouldn’t be any major differences between
the two groups. At least in theory. It’s at this point that I need to explain
to you that this study was not originally about the power of the situation, or authority,
or assuming roles. It was about the deindividuation of prisoners. We’re trying to strip away their individuality. That’s what the study was originally about. So, the guards were under the impression that
they weren’t the subjects, they were simply there to help the experimenters. On guard orientation day, they were told that
they weren’t randomly selected by coin flip to be guards, they were specially selected
because of their unique qualifications – and that the end goal of this study was to create
prison reform. This causes a problem known as Demand Characteristics,
now that the participants know what you’re looking for… they’re unconsciously going
to try and help you find it. That alone would be bad enough. In 2011, Stanford finally made the original
tapes and data available to the public, and people have been digging through this new
information to find out what actually happened. And it turns out, Zimbardo’s team did a
lot more than just hint at what they wanted. Accusations that the guards had been coached
have been around forever. But now it’s pretty undeniable. Again, it’s hinted at several times during
the movie. Do not forget, you have all the authority…
and you’re stronger than they are. They’re starting to create bonds with each
other, break them up. But they never depict the same level of coaching
that was present in reality. In a paper written shortly after the experiment,
one of Zimbardo’s research assistants stated… Furthermore, even before I arrived, Dr. Zimbardo
suggested that the most difficult problem would be to get the guards to behave like
guards. I was asked to suggest tactics based on my
previous experience as master sadist, and, when I arrived at Stanford, I was given the
responsibility of trying to elicit ‘tough-guard’ behavior. That previous experience he mentions is actually
somewhat important. He ran a small-scale prison experiment in
his dorm room as part of a class assignment the previous semester, Zimbardo liked it so
much he wanted to replicate it on a larger scale. They knew the results they wanted before they
even started. The goal was to see if they could get ordinary
non-criminals to exhibit the same loss of individuality as is seen in real prisons. The guards were there to make that happen. During the experiment, one of the guards wasn’t
quite playing the part and we have an audio tape of the exchange. We really want to get you active and involved,
because the guards have to know that every guard is going to be what we call a tough
guard, and so far, uhm… I’m not too tough. Yeah, well, you have to kind of try and get
it in you. You don’t get to tell a guard to toughen
up and then tell the public that it was so weird that the guards spontaneously toughened
up all on their own. Zimbardo and his team are aware of this evidence
and defend it by saying that vaguely telling someone to be tough doesn’t necessarily
mean they should be cruel. They thought of the specifics all on their
own. So, the guard’s authority was challenged
right off the bat, and the guards had to decide how they were going to handle that – and
they had to decide it without our input. Without their input, hmm. Zimbardo hired a few ex-convicts to help advise
the study and create a realistic prison, while this person is somewhat of a composite character,
the person he’s based on wrote this op-ed in 2005… …Ideas such as bags being placed over the
heads of prisoners, inmates being bound together with chains and buckets being used in place
of toilets in their cells were all experiences of mine … which I dutifully shared with
the Stanford Prison Experiment braintrust months before the experiment started. To allege that all these carefully tested,
psychologically solid, upper-middle-class Caucasian “guards” dreamed this up on their
own is absurd. Let me break this down for you, because it’s
important. The Stanford Prison Experiment is used in
psychology classes to demonstrate the idea of attribution. What made you do a specific behavior? Was it an internal motivation? You just felt like doing it because of some
past experience or some quirk of your personality? We call that Dispositional Attribution – it
comes from within. Or was it an external motivation? The temperature outside was a bit too high
or a customer was just rude to you, so you reacted negatively. That’s Situational Attribution – it comes
from the environment. The Stanford Prison Experiment was in the
news as soon as it started, Zimbardo invited the media to film the mock arrests that began
the study. Shortly after the study was shut down, before
he could evaluate the results, several real-world prison riots and escapes occurred. Guess who the media asked to weigh in. Zimbardo explained how the power of the situation
turns every day, normal people into deindividualized prisoners or sadistic guards. And that’s been the narrative ever since. This is a slide from a powerpoint presentation
I used to teach, I used the Stanford Prison Experiment to demonstrate situational attribution. But does it? In a study originally about losing your individuality,
Zimbardo and his team instructed the guards to be tough and likely suggested methods to
carry that out, then they turned to the public and said… Isn’t it strange that these guards randomly
decided to turn into such cruel individuals?! That’s the power of the situation! Any well-adjusted person put into this role
has the potential to do evil things. Any well-adjusted person? I don’t know about that… Remember, this was a study done on just eighteen
college students, nine of which were guards, and only three of them were jerks. Most notably the guard nicknamed John Wayne,
who studied acting and put on a fake accent for the entire experiment. He famously said that he wanted to see how
far he could take it. That’s the self-selection bias at work. If only a third of your sample size turned
cruel and you had to push them into it. Is that really a valid, significant result? Earlier, I brought up that some people don’t
like to call this an experiment, it’s more of a demonstration or a simulation. There was no control group or even variables. And while the experiment did pass a review
board and was approved for funding, Zimbardo seemed to view the IRB as more of a guideline
than actual rules. He played it very fast and loose with the
ethics. Everyone who participated in the study filled
out an informed consent form, which laid out the purpose of the experiment, and several
rules and expectations. Which was thrown out almost immediately. Some loss of freedom was expected, this was
a prison study after all, but it very quickly escalated out of control and became physically
and emotionally abusive. And they weren’t allowed to leave, even
after screaming that they wanted out. In Milgram’s study, the test was to see
when you would quit. You were verbally encouraged to continue,
but if you were done, that was it. That’s how most studies work – if you
want out, you’re out. But this was a prison experiment and if you
just let people leave at the first sign of trouble, you aren’t going to get a lot of
useful data. So, I get why they did it, but that doesn’t
make it right. Furthermore, the guards worked in shifts,
they got to go home every day and take off the uniform. The prisoners did not, they were there around
the clock. Now, I want to paint a picture for you, and
it’s going to be a somewhat dark picture. Imagine you sign up for a psychology study,
you interview with the professor and grad students and get selected. A few weeks later, the REAL police show up
to arrest you in front of your neighbors – it’s okay, you know this is part of the study. You’re brought in, booked like a normal
criminal, deloused, and put in a cell. The guards, who are fellow students, are taking
this way too seriously and start getting physical – you want out. You ask to talk to the professor, and they
bring you to him… only he’s not the professor, he’s the superintendent of the prison. Prisoner 8612 famously broke down and in order
to assess whether he was faking or not, Zimbardo interviewed him personally. In character. The professor was no longer an outside observer,
he was part of the experiment. Later, your parents come to visit – they
are put through the same treatment as real families in real prisons on visiting day and
even act the part, asking you if you’re well fed and such. Then you’re put in front of a parole board,
where you plead for release to the superintendent and various other faculty, who tell you that
because you don’t seem sincere in your repentance, you will serve the rest of your sentence. The people who are running the “experiment”
just called you human garbage for committing a crime that you’re pretty sure you di-
The real police arrested you though. They aren’t letting you leave, your parents
just visited you for fifteen minutes and said goodbye like they’d never see you again. And just to top it off, they bring in a REAL
Catholic priest, not an actor, to tell you this is all real, not an experiment, and the
only way you’re getting out of this is with the assistance of a lawyer. That actually happened, Zimbardo really did
do that. I invited a Catholic priest who had been a
prison chaplain to evaluate how realistic our prison situation was… I watched in amazement as half the prisoners
introduced themselves by number rather than name… he explained that the only way to
get out of prison was with the help of a lawyer. He then volunteered to contact their parents
to get legal aid if they wanted him to. That’s so unbelievably unethical that it
sounds like it should be illegal. Imagine being in that situation, you thought
you were in an experiment, but everyone from the police, to the professors, to your parents,
and the priesthood are now telling you this is real. Several prisoners had mental breakdowns and
had to be sent home- Students, they were students, not prisoners… even I’m doing it now. The experiment was shut down after only six
days rather than waiting the full two weeks. In another break from protocol, the students
weren’t paid for their time until after the experiment, usually you’re paid at the
start so as to not influence the results. Many of the students said they were financially
motivated to stick it out. Zimbardo did not demonstrate the power of
the situation, all he did was replicate Milgram’s obedience study. Only this time, actual people were being hurt. In Milgram’s experiment, the teacher was
the only true participant, they were encouraged to inflict punishment on a learner in the
other room, who was a confederate and wasn’t actually being harmed. The test was to see if the teacher would actually
do it, which most of the time, they did. In Zimbardo’s experiment, the role of teacher
and learner are replaced with guard and prisoner. The teachers are again encouraged to inflict
punishment on the learners, who are not confederates and are actually being harmed. Who is encouraging the guards? Zimbardo and his team. Zimbardo was the scientific authority, the
experimenter telling the guards to continue, which, just like in Milgram’s study, they
did. Nobody has been able to replicate Zimbardo’s
results without including the authority variable. Whether that be an physical person or a vague
feeling of “for the greater good.” Replications where they just put people into
prisoner and guard roles and don’t pressure them to act tough end up looking more like
a summer camp environment. Most people aren’t naturally inclined to
be cruel. There needs to be some sort of external pressure
or influence in addition to the role itself, just putting on a uniform doesn’t turn you
into sadist. But Zimbardo has made a career out of telling
people just that. In an effort to push prison reform, he’s
often said that prison abuses aren’t the fault of a few bad apples, but bad barrels. Which isn’t that spicy of a take – we
all know the prison system is bad. But he adds the caveat that therefore, we
shouldn’t blame the apple, they were just put into a bad barrel. In the decades after the experiment, he has
advocated for that view in front of Congress and served as an expert witness in numerous
cases of prison abuse – for the defense. Even famously advocating on behalf of the
soldiers responsible for Abu Ghraib. Since nobody has been able to reproduce Zimbardo’s
results in a laboratory setting, his only supposed replications are real world scenarios. Which isn’t how science works. And when you start defending war criminals
by using your bogus prison simulation as evidence that they aren’t responsible for their actions,
you took a wrong turn somewhere. Unfortunately, Zimbardo has positioned himself
as the Carl Sagan of psychology, he loves being on TV, and if you’ve ever seen a series
or documentary on the topic, he was likely the host. It’s very unlikely that he’ll ever take
a second critical look at the one experiment that has defined his career. He has too much to lose at this point. He was even the president of the American
Psychological Association for a year. So, publishing research that refutes him is…
risky. But I’ll be interested to see what the academic
community does with this new information over the next few months and years. Zimbardo’s Prison Study is still in textbooks. Some psychologists even say that it’s a
useful example of Situational Attribution, even if the story is untrue. Even if the science was quirky or there was
something that was wrong about the way that it was put together, I think at the end of
the day, I still want students to be mindful that they may find themselves in powerful
situations that could override how they might behave as an individual. That’s the story that’s bigger than the
science. So pick a different example! Alright, first time frying a turkey, stay
inside please. Stay inside! Stay inside- GET INSIDE RIGHT NOW! There, did he yell at her because he’s a
jerk or because he’s about to deep fry a turkey and she’s way too close? Dispositional or Situational. We’re all okay with him yelling at her,
but what about pushing, would that be okay? Maybe, I could see where a light push might
have been warranted. What about a kick, would that be okay? Hmm, I don’t know… So, you’re saying that while the situation
might’ve called for a behavior, there should be limits on that behavior? See how this is a more productive conversation
to have than “I guess the power of the situation made them do that.” It really isn’t that hard to find another
example to illustrate the concept that doesn’t also perpetuate the narrative that war criminals
aren’t responsible for their behavior. Or maybe you want to run your own ethical
study to determine the power of the situation, a skill you can learn more about by going
to skl.sh/knowingbetter12. Skillshare is an online learning community
with thousands of courses taught by authority figures in their field. Take this course in project management, to
learn how to set effective goals instead of just vaguely seeing what happens when you
put people in a fake prison. Or how to stick to a schedule, rather than
making things up on the fly. I would specifically recommend the section
on reflection and improvement, we can all stand to learn from our mistakes. You can learn this and much more with an annual
subscription costing less than $10 a month. And if you head over to skl.sh/knowingbetter12,
you can get two months of unlimited access to all of Skillshare’s courses for free. You’ll also be supporting the channel when
you do. So, why couldn’t we reflect, improve, and
do these studies again? The usual answer is ethics. But that’s not necessarily true, we’ve
been replicating these studies under ethical conditions since the originals… with mixed
results, as I said. No, the real issue is that you know about
them. The original studies were done in the 60s
and 70s, nobody knew what psychology was or how they tested anything. People walked in as a completely blank slate. Now, as soon as you walk in, before you even
fill out the consent form, you’re trying to figure out what they’re actually trying
to test. Am I being recorded right now? Is this part of the test? Are the other participants secretly in on
it? Vsauce attempted to do a recreation of the
Milgram experiment, which supposedly shows the opposite, that people won’t punish others. But both of the groups mentioned that at some
point during the experiment, they doubted that the other team really existed – which,
they didn’t. That’s the end of the study right there. If you don’t think the other person exists,
pushing the button to send a shock or siren becomes meaningless at best and defiant at
worst. Your knowing so much and trying to figure
it out is the problem. I used to work in an EEG lab and after every
session, without fail, the participant asked “so what were you really testing?” and
I would have to disappoint them with the truth. Most of the time, we’re studying what we
told you we’re studying. Even in the few times we used deception, the
thing we were actually studying was even more boring than the fake out. Stop trying to play 4D chess against the experimenters. But in the end, I would rather you knew the
truth about these studies and what they actually demonstrated. Or failed to demonstrate. So, the next time you see Dr. Zimbardo on
television defending the latest prison guard to succumb to the power of the situation,
you’ll know better. I’d like to give a shout out to my latest
Golden Fork patrons, Seth and bitreign. If you’d like to add your name to this list
of study candidates, head on over to patreon.com/knowingbetter, or for a one-time donation, paypal.me/knowingbetter. Don’t forget to coach that subscribe button,
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8 thoughts on “Obeying Authority | Unethical Psychology

  1. Yeah but the external pressure would come from higher ranking members of the organization. Guards must answer to a boss/warden. The experiment was unethical, but it's findings are still valid…to a certain extent.

  2. Who's the voice reading the info? He has an upwards tone at the end of sentences he's reading which is irritating AF!

    But the rest of the video was all good. I did not know the Stanford Prison experiment was manipulated by the experimenter so much. Sorry to be negative at the start. I do appreciate your content👍
    Merry Christmas KB🎄

  3. I'm pretty sure Zimbardo was the inspiration for Hannibal Lecter – the physical appearance and mannerisms, at least.

  4. Glad you're back, Zach. Always a thought-provoking presentation. I'm hooked. I just wish I had money to send you. Consider this as moral support.

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