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Science Meets Reality TV

8 November 2001 7:00 pm
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Too real. Strip searches and delousing helped student "guards" assert power over "prisoners" in a 1971 experiment.

Two scientists in the United Kingdom are preparing to take advantage of the popularity of "reality TV" to recreate a notorious psychology experiment in which students played the roles of prisoners and guards. Skeptics, including the researcher who designed the 1971 study, fear a rerun of the abuses that plagued the original research. But supporters say the show offers an excellent opportunity to investigate the psychology of racism, oppression, and terrorism.

The Stanford prison experiment, conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, intended to sequester volunteer "prisoners" and "guards" in the basement of the school's psychology building for 2 weeks. But when the guards became shockingly brutal and abusive, the experiment was stopped after 6 days. While the study demonstrated the influence of social context on individual behavior, its disturbing legacy prevented further comparable tests.

Now, Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews, U.K., and Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter, U.K., have accepted an offer to update the study for television. Aware of the wild popularity of putting people into distorted social contexts for entertainment, the BBC plans to broadcast the experiment, with scientist instead of producers in control. It will share a setup similar to Zimbardo's but with a less oppressive atmosphere and safeguards such as independent observers and strict rules for behavior. Reicher and Haslam say this is a unique chance to test "social identity theory," which posits that group identity can override individual personality in shaping behavior and may help explain how group pressure can lead to racism and terrorism.

Zimbardo and others have expressed concern that entertainment will override safety. "There is no question in my mind but that the BBC and their consultants are hoping for something dramatic to erupt, to make it riveting for viewers," Zimbardo says. But Dominic Abrams, a psychologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury, thinks the show should go on. "It is rare that one gets an opportunity to simulate a powerful situation," he says. Such large studies can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, he says, and TV companies may now be the only source of funding. Filming is scheduled to begin before the end of the year.

Related sites

The Stanford prison experiment
Stephen Reicher's home page

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