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Why The Stanford Prison Experiment Matters To You

The Powerful Influence of Your Expectations

As an undergraduate psychology student, I studied the widely-taught “Stanford Prison Experiment.”

The experiment became a classic case study and a cultural phenomenon. A fictional movie of the same name, based upon true events and released by IFC Films, is due to be released later this week.

An understanding of this experiment is valuable to business leaders, career counselors, and employees alike.

The experiment was conducted at Stanford University in 1971, it was funded by the US Office of Naval Research and was of interest as an investigation into the cause of conflict between guards and prisoners.

Twenty-four students were randomly assigned roles of either prisoner and guard, in a simulated prison, situated in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department building.

The participants were provided guidelines for behavior and adapted to their roles beyond expectation. “Guards” became brutal rulers who humiliated, and even tortured, some of the prisoners. “Prisoners” readily accepted psychological abuse and became subservient. The behaviors became so extreme that the entire experiment was halted after only six days, portions of the experiment were filmed and are publicly available.

The study has been often used to support the conclusion that ordinary people provided with authoritarian power will act in a cruel and ruthless manner.  It is “human nature.”

That conclusion is unsupported by the experiment. The Stanford experiment was flawed in both it’s design and execution. Participants were not “ordinary,” they were provided with rules that biased the course of their actions, they knew they were part of short-term experiment, project leaders participated and influenced the participants during the experiment, and participants knew they were under observation.

In the broadest sense, the experiment suggests that behavior conforms to preconceived expectations. In the words of Maria Konnikova, in her excellent piece in The New Yorker,
"All else being equal, we act as we think we’re expected to act—especially if that expectation comes from above.”

When business leaders set expectations, or limitations, their teams will perform as expected. If a manager presumes, correctly or incorrectly, that an associate or project will fail to meet their expectations they have created a “self-fulfilling prophecy” - a prediction that causes itself to be true.

This principle may also be used as a tool for positive outcome.  Treat your managers as leaders and they will tend to lead.  Set positive expectations for your teams and they will respond in kind.  Create a culture of communication and collaboration and connections will build themselves.

Managers should be aware of the powerful influence of their expectations. 

People are not lab rats, they will not always respond as expected. Nonetheless, authority sets the table: beware of sharp objects.

(c) David J. Katz, New York City

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