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RS 241 - Thibault Le Texier on "Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment"

Release date: October 14th, 2019

Thibault Le Texier

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most famous psychology experiments in history. For decades, we've been told that it proves how regular people easily turn sadistic when they are asked to role play as prison guards. But the story now appears to be mostly fraudulent. Thibault Le Texier is a researcher who dug into the Stanford archives and learned that the "prison guards" were actually told how to behave in order to support the experimenters' thesis. On this episode, Thibault and Julia discuss his findings, how the experimenters got away with such a significant misrepresentation for so long, and what this whole affair says about the field of psychology.


Thibault's 2019 paper, in English: "Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment."

Thibault's 2018 book, in French: "Histoire d'un Mensonge." ("History of a Lie")

"The Lifespan of a Lie" by Ben Blum

Philip Zimbardo's official response to criticism from Ben Blum

"The Stanford Prison Experiment was massively influential. We just learned it was a fraud," by Brian Resnick for Vox

"Philip Zimbardo defends the Stanford Prison Experiment, his most famous work," Brian Resnick's interview with Philip Zimbardo for Vox

"Psychology itself is under scrutiny" by Benedict Carey

"The Secrets of Abu Ghraib Revealed: American Soldiers on Trial" by Christopher Graveline and Michael Clemens

"On Human Conduct" by Michael Oakeshott

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science

Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (12)

Fascinating. I will consider the experiment a fraud from now on, based on trusting this podcast as a source, how objective the evidence seems, and on the quotes of the organizer.

I think a sort of charitable take on this (although it's still quite bad) is that people are slow to change their minds precisely because it's such an influential study. That increases the cost of admitting that it's a fraud, because then they were wrong all this time. This is especially true for people who wrote textbooks that start off with the experiment. That also explains why younger people seem more likely to be outraged (which I agree is the proper response).
October 15, 2019 | Unregistered Commentersty.silver
Thanks for the great podcast -- the interview with Thibault Le Texier. Fascinating subject and excellent interview. Don't despair! There are more rational people out there (I hope).
October 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEric Lunger
I lol'd when Julia said, "Goddamn it."

Was the Stanford Prison Experiment published in a peer-reviewed journal? If not, how could textbooks cite it, and if so, was it retracted?

Lawfare wrote about "the threat of fake science," except they were talking about Russian disinformation, but there's plenty of fake/junk science without Russian help.

The French accent reminded me of Philippe Karsenty, who was convicted of defamation for exposing French television's fake news about the shooting of Muhammad al-Durrah.

Fake news and fake science won't let the facts get in the way of a good story.
October 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMax
The debunking of the Stanford Prison Experiment will really ruin the "circumstances made me engage in all that extreme sadistic behavior, it's really not me" defense. Some ppl might even defend the legitimacy of the SPE to pseudo justify their prior or routine misconduct.

Presenting the SPE as quirky but still valid in spite of all the legitimate critiques and evidence of invalidity does little to justify the use of SPE as the basis of any psychological theory. However, other social psychology experiments have shown that most people do have a strong tendency to conform w/ group conduct.

The NYT has had serious credibility problems for quite a while.

"It's defense is its longevity." WOW. Someone could use this to justify all manner of injustices and prejudices. Think slavery, sexism, racism, xenophobia, spousal abuse, child abuse ...
October 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
He may have debunked one measly experiment but let's not get all exited and feel like he has debunked Psychology in general. People are still easily malleable and can go from good to bad and vice versa just as History as shown in all types of human conflicts/situations throughout the World. So I would say he debunked this experiment but not actually what these type of experiments often show overall.
October 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
Love Julia's honest tone and remarks of despair about the subsequent coverage emphasizing the idea that the story is the important part, the science isn't the point. Sheldon Solomon et al of "The Worm At The Core" has an interesting perspective on why the story carries the day. If Solomon (Becker) is right, then the discussion may turn to how to align worldview narrative incentives with truth.
October 16, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom Martin
Outstanding Julia! I checked the Retraction Watch database and Zimbardo has no papers listed as being retracted. One can only hope.
October 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJim Catalano
Thank you for the podcast!

I'm unclear about the "Instruction" criticism. Wasn't the point of the demonstration to show how people respond to instruction to do bad things? That what I remember was emphasized to us when we studied it. So the instruction is part of the demonstration.
October 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEran
I was fascinated by this podcast and I experienced many of the reactions posted above. It seemed to me to be a great example of how myths and fake news is so contagious. I wanted to find out more damning /debunking information.

However, when I searched for other podcasts for "Zimbardo" the first I found was Tim Ferriss #226. I am a fan of Tim's podcasts so I thought this would be a good start. To my chagrin, Tim gave a completely different picture of Zimbardo. Early days for me, I have a few more podcasts to listen to.

Another great podcast, Julia. thanks.
October 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDrew Griffiths
Hi, I really love the show and it has helped me get through quite a few exams and pull my head out of my own perspective... Today as I listened to you searching for a rationale for Zimbardo's donation of the complete archives, it really reminded me of the questions we ask in terms of eye witness testimony. I can't remember who reported this research (I do think it was your podcast), people that were interviewed post 9/11 and reinterviewed later completely changed their 'truth'. The new narrative became the truth. When they were shown original recordings of the initial interview, they made excuses for their mistaken beliefs at the time. Zimbardo has been so invested in this research since the beginning, perhaps he sees everything in the archive that contradicts his beliefs as irrelevant. Just a thought...
Thanks for rationally speaking
October 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNikki Huson
Thank you for that information you article
October 28, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterraft wars 2
Thank you for this excellent episode, keep up this work!
November 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTorben

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