Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Truth in the Stanford Prison Experiment

Introduction to Social Psychology: An interdisciplinary approachEdit

Social psychology is the scientific study of the cognition and actions of individuals in social situations[1]. The field is dominated by research motivated by a positivist approach to uncovering the truth, but has become divided into separate areas with different research methodologies and practices [2]. The opposing approaches to truth discovery have created interdisciplinary tension between the psychological and sociological branches, each disregarding the others work, deeming it irrelevant. The successful integration of the disciplines is essential for finding a more objective truth within the discipline.

The chapter will look in depth at the different disciplinary truths and the need for integration, with focus on the Stanford Prison Experiment as a prime example of why interdisciplinary work is necessary.

Case Study: The Stanford Prison ExperimentEdit

File:Guard and Prisoner in Stanford Prison Experiment.jpg
Guard and Prisoner in Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment (1971) was a social psychology experiment by Philip Zimbardo in the basement of Stanford University. The experiment took an inductive and constructivist approach to the truth and aimed to investigate whether sadistic behaviour is caused by individual personalities (dispositional), or their surroundings (situational). To do this, Zimbardo created an experimental set-up that simulated prison-life. The experiment was supposed to run for two weeks but was shut down after 6 days due to serious ethical issues concerning the well-being of the participants[3].

The integrity of the experiment was questioned, with 'demand characteristics' (participants acting in a certain way because they think it's expected) being a contributing factor[4], meaning the results were a biased, tampering with the 'truth'.

Disciplinary PerspectivesEdit

Three Faces of Social PsychologyEdit

The idea of interdisciplinarity in the social psychology field is not new; the 25 years after WWII was named the 'Golden Age' of interdisciplinary social psychology as many training and research programmes were established in major US universities. Yet, by the mid 1960s these had mostly disappeared. The contributing factors to their disappearance are said to be the threat to the traditional departmental structure and a lack of funding and major breakthroughs. [5]. Approaches to truth in social psychology became marked by three separate divisions, described as 'three faces' by James House[6]. These divisions were psychological social psychology, symbolic interactionism and psychological sociology (sociological social psychology), all with new and different interpretations of the truth and different research methodologies. Psychological social psychology emphasised laboratory methods, symbolic interactionism focusses on informal interviewing methods and psychological sociology uses mostly survey methods[2].

The continuous growing apart of these fields, resulting in academic ignorance, can be seen as the main contributing factor for the demise of the SPE. An interdisciplinary team from all divisions would have been able to avoid the countless ethical violations and would've produced a universal truth, helpful and applicable throughout multiple disciplines.

Psychology: Psychological Social PsychologyEdit

Psychology seeks to understand the truth behind human thought, feeling, and behaviour[7]. Psychological social psychology is largely dominated by this pursuit of inductive truth through the scientific method (truth seeking through experiment and observation). The notable Stanford prison experiment (SPE), highlights how scientific methodologies are used in practice in psychological social psychology.

Firstly, a hypothesis is defined. Zimbardo, the researcher behind the SPE, wanted to test the hypothesis that it's the personalities of the guards that is the cause of abusive behaviour in prisons (dispositional)[8]. The second step is designing an experiment for observation and evidence collection. Zimbardo created an experimental set-up simulating prison-life. 24 volunteers were randomly assigned, after psychological screening, to the role of either 'guard' or 'prisoner'. The screening processes accredited any aggressive behaviour to the environment (situational)[9].

In following the scientific method, Zimbardo created a 'structured' system to seek truth in his experiment. However the lack of emotional empathy in the scientific method can mean the whole social picture isn't acknowledged- no objective truth.

The SPE relied solely on naturalistic observation for evidence collection; observing and recording behaviour as it occurs[10]. Though common in social psychology, it is not a scientific method of measurement; unstructured observations are recorded qualitatively[11], causing interdisciplinary tension (especially in the SPE) due to its conflict with the scientific method. Experimental psychologists often argue that naturalistic observation produces a less objective 'truth'. They contend that the results are less reliable because it is harder to control variables, meaning the experiment is unrepeatable and therefore the conclusions cannot be tested.

However, the interdisciplinary nature of social psychology means that it possesses a unique version of 'truth'. This means that though it extracts much of its methodology from psychology, there is value to be gained from integrating techniques from other disciplines, such as sociology. It is arguable that this value gained balances, or even outweighs, the value lost from not rigidly following the scientific method.

Sociology: Sociological Social PsychologyEdit

File:Prisoner Questionnaire- Stanford Prison Experiment.png
Prisoner Questionnaire conducted after Stanford Prison Experiment

Sociology is the scientific study of human interaction and social relationships, looking at social processes and rules.[12]. Specifically, sociological social psychology (psychological sociology) studies individual social psychological behaviour and its relation to social structures[5].

Psychological sociology emphasises survey research methodologies in identifying truth, taking a more qualitative approach than psychological social psychology.[2] and focusing more on individuals experiences in social situations more empathetically- a factor missing from the SPE.

Post experiment, Zimbardo conducted a short survey of the prisoners, where they placed their emotions towards guards and prisoners on scales of different adjectives[13]. The sociological methods Zimbardo used were very simplistic and arguably lacked depth. By placing greater emphasis on psychological sociology in the SPE e.g. surveying the individuals throughout the experiment, the ethical issues could have been avoided and a more objective truth could have been reached.

However, the integration of a survey system into a scientific method set-up introduces two opposing evidence types, creating conflict. This could be seen as disrupting the variables in place, and, depending on the researchers discipline, one evidence type may be favoured, producing biased results and a 'subjective' truth.


The Stanford prison experiment is a prime example of sociology and psychology interacting within social psychology. Expertise from both schools were required to create a realistic prison simulation. However, more co-operation and crossover was needed to eliminate bias and uncover a more accurate truth.

Though it remains a frequently cited and influential experiment in psychology today, ambiguity and distrust in the results remain, much of this arising from ethical concerns, as well as interdisciplinary tensions between the sociological and psychological areas of social psychology. This is because there seems to be a shortfall in what are accepted as the necessary standards of measurement for the development of theories and production of ‘truth’. The SPE is often criticised for this very reason[14].

Despite this, it seems clear that the methodologies of both disciplines (sociology and psychology) bring something to the table and create a more universal truth; qualitative (sociological) measures such as survey and self-reporting are necessary to gage the participants individual emotional experiences, whereas quantitative (psychological) methods are needed to set up the experiment in a systematic way (scientific method) and track behaviour. This highlights the need for integration between the disciplines, to create universal truths that are accepted and beneficial across disciplines.


  1. Murchinson, Carl (1935). A Handbook in Social Psychology. Clark University. 
  2. a b c Wilson, David; Schafer, Robert (1978). Is Social Psychology Interdisciplinary?. 4. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi:10.1177/014616727800400408. 
  3. Michael Stevens (19 December 2018). "The Stanford Prison Experiment". Retrieved 6 December 2020. 
  4. Bartels, Jared (2019). "Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment, again: Examining demand characteristics in the guard orientation". The Journal of Social Psychology (Taylor and Francis Group) 159 (6): 780-790. doi:10.1080/00224545.2019.1596058. 
  5. a b Sewell, William H. (1989). "Some Reflections on the Golden Age of Interdisciplinary Social Psychology". Annual Review of Sociology (Annual Reviews Inc.). 
  6. House, James (1977). The Three Faces of Social Psychology. American Sociological Association. doi:10.2307/3033519. 
  7. School of Psychology (24 January 2019). "About Psychology". The University of Queensland. Retrieved 7 December 2020. 
  8. Melise Douglas (28 November 2017). "What is the Stanford Prison Experiment?". Retrieved 12 December 2020. 
  9. Zimbardo, Phillip (1971). Narration of the Stanford prison experiment. 
  10. Jhangiani, Dr. Rajiv (2014). Principles of Social Psychology - 1st International Edition. BC Campus. 
  11. Salkind, Neil J. (2010). The Encyclopaedia of research design. SAGE Publishing. 
  12. Stolley, Kathy S (2005). The Basics of Sociology. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-32387-9. Retrieved 11 December 2020. 
  13. Zimbardo, Philip (1971). Prisoner Questionnaire. Stanford University. 
  14. Blum, Ben. "The Lifespan of a Lie – Trust Issues".