In the summer of 1971, Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo turned a campus basement into a prison. Equipping the prison with hidden cameras and microphones, Zimbardo hoped to record and study prison behavior with normal and healthy college students. Males responded to an ad in the paper, underwent medical and psychological evaluations, and were then assigned a role as either a guard or a prisoner, based on the flip of a coin.
As the experiment progressed, guards and prisoners took to their respective roles with alarming speed. Guards became hostile and power-driven, routinely humiliating the prisoners and using physical exercise as discipline. The guards also quickly realized the value of destroying the solidarity of the prisoners, establishing a privilege cell where the prisoners could shower and change smocks, sleep on a bed, and use proper toilet facilities. Of course, such special treatment drew notice from the other prisoners and all cohesiveness in the group melted.
The prisoners changed from confident college men to depressed and withdrawn inmates exhibiting sociopath behavior. One prisoner had to be released because he cried uncontrollably and began to behave dangerously. The behavior of both guards and prisoners deteriorated so quickly that Zimbardo called off the experiment after six days instead of its planned two weeks. Zimbardo wouldnt have done so except for the intervention of another Stanford psychologist, Christina Maslach, who came into the prison late in the experiment.
Maslach immediately recognized that Zimbardo and his study team had lost all scientific objectivity and were acting more as prison authorities than professors. As an example, a rumor had made its way to Zimbardo that the released prisoner would attempt a prison break with some compatriots.
Instead of observing the proceedings as observation psychologists, Zimbardo instructed his staff to move the prisoners out of the prison and completely break it down. When the ex-prisoner and his posse arrived, Zimbardo would inform them that the experiment was over and that all prisoners had been released. There was even talk of trying to recapture the ex-prisoner. The attempt never happened and the psychology professors did not attempt to record a single amount of data that day, a cardinal sin in experimentation. They were geared toward controlling the prisoners and keeping the game going.
The famous (and infamous) Stanford Prison Experiment has a clear message: Ones surroundings dictates ones perceptions.
The results are particularly salient in regards to todays standard fare of reality TV. In these shows, contestants are taken out of their regular lives and thrown into an environment where it is not only encouraged but expected to risk life and limb. Whether these events are based in the real world is irrelevant. The contestants and producers treat them as real.
It isnt hard to see the parallels between Zimbardos failed experiment and reality TV. Hidden cameras and microphones abound. Survivor featured moments where contestants were taken away during the night and indulged with a shower or good food while their group suffered. In The Mole, one contestant does his or her best to make a muck of the groups ability to accomplish goals. The lack of solidarity frequently provides the shows most potent fireworks.
Also prevalent is the work of the producers to keep the game going rather than to care for the contestants. Recently, on Big Brother 2, one contestant threatened to kill another as he held a kitchen knife to her throat. No one in production raised a hand to stop him though they did get the whole thing on tape. It was only after the event that they intervened. It wasnt as if the guy was a serial killer. He took psychological tests and physical examinations similar to the participants of Zimbardos study. In both cases, no test or examination could predict behavior in a radically different environment. The producers of these reality TV shows have no idea who will turn dangerous.
The question is how far we allow this to go. With one show asking contestants to solve a murder (Small Town X), one show asking contestants to face their biggest fears (Fear Factor), and one show (Spy TV) which is akin to Candid Camera on crack, the possibilities are endless. And while we hope no one will intentionally get hurt or hurt another, participants show little ability to discern reality from fantasy. Whos to say that the next Mole will not take his/her job so seriously that the only solution is to whack the other contestants?
Reality can be a fascinating subject with more drawing power than fantasy. At the same time, some line needs to exist, separating good, fun reality with bad, dangerous reality before someone gets hurt. Todays shows dont rule out that possibility. Participants in all shows must sign multiple waivers eschewing all blame of hurt or even death in exchange for the chance to get Lost in the wilderness while the cameras watch.
This is not a call for a standards and practices for reality shows. If contestants willingly go and do these things and people willingly tune in to watch reality that is more interesting than their own existence, such is life. But its not asking too much to pay heed to the work, no matter how ill-conceived, that has been done in the past. If Maslach had not intervened, the Stanford Prisoner Experiment could have likely ended with a prisoner being beaten or raped or a guard being overpowered. Lets find our Maslach and make sure that doesnt happen on network TV.