BBC’s “The Experiment”, a recreation of the Stanford prison experiment, has been halted:
it is clear the participants – particularly those selected to be ‘prisoners’ rather than ‘guards’ – were placed under severe levels of stress. Friends of some who took part in the programme .. said that it was more gruelling than they had been expecting.
So, what were they expecting, exactly?
Date: Thu, 24 Jan 2002 09:46:58 -0000
From: “Tim Chapman” (spam-protected)
To: forteana (spam-protected)
Subject: Stanford Experiment redux
BBC halts ‘prison experiment’
Matt Wells, media correspondent
Thursday January 24, 2002
When the BBC revealed it was to replicate for television the notorious Stanford experiment, when university students were “imprisoned” to study responses to solitude and oppression, executives said that it would not repeat the brutality of the original.
While the BBC version was approached with far more caution than the 1971 model, which was terminated after six days when the participants’ behaviour had degenerated, it appears to have met a similar fate.
Scientists overseeing the BBC project became concerned that the 15 participants’ emotional and physical wellbeing was in danger of being compromised, and called a halt before it was due to end.
There is no suggestion that any of the volunteers, incarcerated in a “prison” constructed at Elstree studios in Hertfordshire, came to any lasting harm or that their experiences went beyond what they had been led to expect.
But it is clear the participants – particularly those selected to be “prisoners” rather than “guards” – were placed under severe levels of stress. Friends of some who took part in the programme, called The Experiment and due to be televised on BBC2 in the spring, said that it was more gruelling than they had been expecting.
When the BBC advertised for participants last year, it was clear that The Experiment would be no ordinary documentary. Headed “Do you really know yourself?” the advert asked for volunteers who would take part in a “university-backed social science experiment to be shown on TV”, and warned that successful candidates would be exposed to “exercise, tasks, hardship, hunger, solitude and anger”.
Only men were asked to apply, money was not offered, and there was no suggestion that participation would lead to fame. Instead, the producers – from the BBC’s factual programmes department, not the entertainment division
promised it would “change the way you think”.
The BBC experiment was overseen by two psychologists: Alex Haslam from Exeter University; and Stephen Reicher from St Andrews. An independent “ethical committee” also monitored the project. This committee, it is thought, in consultation with the psychol-ogists, made the decision to terminate the experiment, due to last 10 days, after eight or nine. Philip Zimbardo, who oversaw the original Stanford experiment and later said it should never be repeated, was sceptical when news of the programme first emerged. At Stanford, the boredom of the guards drove them to abuse the prisoners. This abuse included night strip searches, making prisoners clean the toilets with their hands, and tripping prisoners when they walked past. Some prisoners developed signs of emotional instability. He said last year: “That kind of research is now considered to be unethical and should not be redone just for sensational TV and Survivor-type glamour. I am amazed a British university psychology department would be involved.
“Obviously they are doing the study in the hopes that high drama will be created, as in my original study. If not, it will be boring. If so, how will it be terminated and when?”The BBC said that termination of the experiment proved that its security systems had worked. A spokeswoman said a great deal of useful data had been amassed, and no scientific value was lost.
“It was planned that The Experiment would last 10 days but, aware of the stresses under which volunteers might find themselves, the BBC was always prepared, if necessary, to withdraw individuals or end it early. In the event the psychologists did decide to end the experiment earlier than anticipated, but not before a lot of data had been collected.”
“The psychologists are confident that the material they have will change the way we think about the nature of power and powerlessness.”