What ever happened to the survivors of psychology’s more notorious experiments? Were they damaged for life? Did they learn from their participation? Did they have any specific insights from their unique position in these famous and infamous experiments?
Of course, Google has the answer.
1. The marshmallow experiment: A 2009 article in the New Yorker tracked down Carolyn Weisz and her brother Craig who, as perschoolers, took part in the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, run by Walter Mischel. Although she can’t remember, Carolyn is quoted as saying she thinks she would have delayed gratification to get the second marshmallow. She is now an associate psychology professor at the University of Puget Sound, having gained a PhD in social psychology. A classic example of the success delayed gratification can bring.
Her brother Craig however remembers that he took the marshmallow straight away. They also tested him with plastic toys and when he couldn’t get more, he broke into the desk. The article says Craig has had a variety of career experiences in the entertainment industry and is currently helping to write and produce a film.
While it is easy to do the link between delayed gratification and higher education, perhaps Craig’s alternate solution to access additional toys demonstrates a level of creativity, of non-acceptance of the rules.
2. The prison experiment: Zimbardo’s infamous 1971 experiment divided student volunteers into “prison guards” and “prisoners”. The experiment was cancelled after six days because of the disturbing and cruel actions of the guards and the despair evident in the prisoners.
Stanford magazine features interviews with Zimbardo, his wife (who stopped the experiment) a “guard” and a “prisoner”.
Zimbardo remembers inhabiting the role of the prison superintendent, unable to see the results of the harsh treatment on the prisoners even when it was pointed out to him.
Christina Maslach who later married Zimbardo in 1972, and is now a Professor of Psychology at University of California, Berkeley, says she was shocked by the effects the experiment had on her husband, but also on the guards, citing an instance of a guard who seemed “sweet” when out of the experiment but whom she was unable to watch as he humiliated the prisoners. Zimbardo feels he has become kinder, more self-reflective as a result of the experiment.
Dave Eshelman, the most abusive “guard” said he behaved that way on purpose, considering that that was the role required to give the experimenters something to work with. He modelled his role on the role of an abusive guard in movie Cool Hand Luke. None of the other guards challenged him, and in fact they all joined in the same behaviour. He says when he saw Abu Ghraib photographs, he knew exactly how it had happened. He expresses some regret over what happened in the experiment. Today he owns a mortgage business in Saratoga.
Another guard, John Marks, now a medical coder for Kaiser Permanente, says he felt that the abusive nature of the experiment was designed by Zimbardo and not accidental. He says the sleep deprivation and other forms of sadistic behaviour were programmed. At the time he says he was smoking marijuana every day and hence was somewhat numb to the effects of the experiment – he had wanted to be a prisoner and was disappointed to be assigned as a guard – but he doesn’t feel the experiment was as bad as he headlines make it out to be.
A prisoner, Richard Yacco, is quoted as saying the prisoners engaged in passive resistance as a way of reinforcing their solidarity and exerting some power. Yacco developed depression and was “paroled” a day before the experiment ended. He is now a high school teacher and wonders if student drop-outs are related to students conforming with the roles being assigned to them, just as the prisoners and guards conformed to their expected roles.
Researcher Craig Haney noted how quickly he and others aclimatised to shocking abuses – they quickly became normal. He is now a leading researcher on the psychological effects of incarceration and a leader in prsion reform.
3. Jane Elliot’s Blue eyes – brown eyes experiment. Jane Elliott was a school teacher in Ohio. In 1968, the day after the murder of Martin Luther King, she divided her third-grade class into blue eyes and brown eyes. On the first day the blue eyes were the privileged class – given extra privileges, sat at the front of the classroom and told to treat the brown-eyes as a lower class. On the second day, the brown-eyes were the privileged class. On the whole they were kinder to the blue-eyes than the blue-eyes had been to them. Interestingly, reading tests conducted during the experiment showed that the “dominant” group’s test scores went up, and after the experiment it would stay up for the rest of the year.
Jane Elliott went on to become a leading teacher of diversity training. A reunion of the original group of students in 1982 – 14 years later – showed the students, now young adults, remembering how they felt on both of those days. As the non-dominant class they felt humiliated. Asked whether the pain was worth the learning, they agreed it was, and felt that the lesson had been well learned and had stayed with them.
What other experiments would you like to follow up? Nominate the details and I’ll see what I can find.
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