Other, more subtle factors also shaped the experiment. It’s often said that the study participants were ordinary guys—and they were, indeed, determined to be “normal” and healthy by a battery of tests. But they were also a self-selected group who responded to a newspaper advertisement seeking volunteers for “a psychological study of prison life.” In a 2007 study, the psychologists Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland asked whether that wording itself may have stacked the odds. They recreated the original ad, and then ran a separate ad omitting the phrase “prison life.” They found that the people who responded to the two ads scored differently on a set of psychological tests. Those who thought that they would be participating in a prison study had significantly higher levels of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance, and they scored lower on measures of empathy and altruism.
Taken together, these two studies don’t suggest that we all have an innate capacity for tyranny or victimhood. Instead, they suggest that our behavior largely conforms to our preconceived expectations. All else being equal, we act as we think we’re expected to act—especially if that expectation comes from above. Suggest, as the Stanford setup did, that we should behave in stereotypical tough-guard fashion, and we strive to fit that role. Tell us, as the BBC experimenters did, that we shouldn’t give up hope of social mobility, and we act accordingly.
via The New Yorker.