The Prison Of TV

As nine men are led into a harsh, bright steel environment, they are stripped, shaved, and dressed in orange prison overalls by five stoic guards. A voiceover declares that these men have volunteered for a TV experiment and were only told to expect difficulties such as hunger, boredom, and isolation. One may assume this is the newest, most extreme version of Big Brother – the pinnacle of humiliating TV.

However, just 10 minutes into the show, the audience’s expectations are challenged. There is no reality TV drama here. Instead, the main topic of discussion is the use and abuse of power, with references to Animal Farm and fascism in 1920s Germany.

Psychology students may recognize similarities with Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford prison experiment, where volunteers were divided into prisoners and guards, eventually turning into an exercise of tyranny by the guards. Zimbardo himself admits that the experiment was too psychologically damaging and should never be repeated. So why is the BBC repeating it more than 30 years later?

Professor Alex Haslam from Exeter University and Dr. Steve Reicher from St. Andrews are the two psychologists behind The Experiment. They argue that while their show is comparable to Zimbardo’s work, there are significant differences. "Zimbardo played the head guard," Prof Haslam explains. "We were hands-off, and we had ethical safeguards in place to protect participants, including clinical psychologists to consult with at any time, and an ethics committee that included a Holocaust survivor, a member of the Howard League, and an MP."

Both psychologists emphasize that The Experiment is a serious and empirical science, challenging Zimbardo’s findings. "Our guards were ambivalent and circumspect about their use of power, so the idea that people conform to roles passively is highly suspect. People understand that they face difficult decisions in the situation in which they were involved. Moreover, they challenge the notion that resistance is futile, as our prisoners attacked the system and made inroads against it."

Zimbardo has criticized both the ethics and the findings of The Experiment. "I welcome reality TV in general for creating an appetite for psychology, but I loathe its current forms," he says. "The fact that it is done for TV or commercial imperatives invalidates its findings because there is no means of controlling the impact of being televised." David Miller, a member of the Stirling Media Group, also dismisses The Experiment as an example of two psychologists being corrupted by TV’s drive for ratings.

In conclusion, while The Experiment may seem to be the epitome of humiliating reality TV, it is a serious scientific study that challenges Zimbardo’s findings and demonstrates that people are not passive, but rather think and make difficult decisions in challenging scenarios. While the show may have ethical and validity concerns, it creates an appetite for psychology and reminds viewers of the importance of controlled scientific research.

The BBC claims that the success of the program relies solely on its scientific merit, although it’s possible that the executives behind the scenes are focusing more on the audience figures and profitability. Professor Haslam acknowledges that there’s always a conflict between a TV show’s entertainment value and academic rigor, but believes that the benefits of their extensive study outweigh any possible drawbacks.

Psychologists usually work on experiments with limited funding and resources, so they rarely have the means to test more than one variable for a short period of time. This program enabled them to test multiple clinical, organizational, and social states over an extended period, although television might have influenced the participants’ behavior. Even so, this may prove a critical finding as it suggests that tyrants are aware of observation, and surveillance appears to keep them in check. The experiment also utilized frequent salivary cortisol tests, which would be challenging to manipulate.

Haslam and Reicher anticipate that sorting through their vast array of findings could take years, and they may still not reach any definitive conclusions. As Zimbardo, the head researcher, served as the head guard, it could be that his authority legitimized the tyranny, and Haslam and Reicher might have faced the same issue if they led the experiment. Without knowing the experiment’s duration, there’s no telling if the participants would behave the same way over several years.

Despite the study’s merits, there are also concerns about the relationship between academia and the media. Haslam and Reicher were exceptionally rigorous in their screening process, eliminating applicants who showed aggression, authoritarianism, racism, or psychological unwellness. In contrast, other TV shows may not have such a thorough selection process. Some Big Brother contestants were only assessed for forty minutes, and they came out of the show with psychological scars and little preparation for life after the program.

David Miller, a critic of psychologist’s media influence, filed a complaint against a psychologist’s work on a TV program, but his complaint was initially rejected with no explanation. The British Psychological Society acknowledges their procedures require improvement and announced a working party to develop more detailed guidelines for psychologists in the media.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) issued guidelines on its members’ media participation to counter the expectation of the "freak show" balance. Television shows often exaggerate or distort narrative for entertainment value, which can have lasting effects on participants’ public image.

Derek McCabe, who took part as a prisoner, expressed satisfaction with his participation compared to Big Brother-style programs. However, the lasting damage may be with the audience, who may become desensitized to watching humiliation on TV.

The Guardian’s Corrections and Clarifications section published a retraction on Wednesday, May 15th 2002. In acknowledgment of the source material, we regret to inform our readers that the quote from Philip Zimbardo was originally featured in The Psychologist journal.


  • rosewebb

    Rose Webb is an educational blogger and volunteer who also studies for a degree in law. She loves to write about her experiences and share her knowledge with others, and is passionate about helping others to achieve their goals.

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