Science and society

Philip Zimbardo has been very critical of the BBC Study.
In his reply to our key article in the British Journal of Social Psychology, he makes a range of criticisms:

  • (a) that our study had no psychological reality for the participants;
  • (b) that it was fundamentally flawed because participants knew they were taking part in an experiment and that this would be shown on television;
  • (c) that (despite our claims) the division of participants into Prisoners and Guards was not random but rather we purposefully made the “big tough rough guys” into Prisoners and the “more effete guys” into Guards;
  • (d) that our description of our various interventions as theoretically informed is just fancy rhetoric designed to cover up our bias and meddling; and
  • (e) that in reality, what we were doing was not science at all, but a pretence at science for the purposes of creating entertaining television.

Many of these ideas are summarized in his belief

  • (f) that it is ludicrous to imagine a prison in which guards are stressed and prisoners gain ascendancy over them.

In short, Zimbardo's formal response accuses us of being both bad and dishonest scientists and dupes of the BBC. As he puts it: “I believe this alleged ‘social psychology field study’ is fraudulent and does not merit acceptance by the social psychological community in Britain, the United States, or anywhere except in media psychology”. More succinctly, when pressed by Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hardtalk, he describes our study as "abominable" and “shameful” (relevant parts of this interview can be accessed on the right-hand side of this page*).

Over time, however, Zimbardo’s tone seems to have changed a little. In a recent exchange of messages, he acknowledged that it is important that students are exposed to both sides of the debate between himself and ourselves.

That is our position too. Science progresses by laying all the evidence out in the open and allowing people to make up their own minds on the basis of what they see. By looking in detail at the SPE, at our study, at Zimbardo’s criticisms, and at our rejoinder to them, you can reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of our different positions, and decide for yourself who provides a better analysis of the social psychology of tyranny and resistance.

*This interview was broadcast on March 21, 2008 and is reproduced with permission of the BBC. Details of the Hardtalk programme can be accessed here.

Zimbardo's objections to the BBC Prison Study are outlined in this interview with Stephen Sackur