29 June 2008

Stanford Prison Blues

This weekend the Very Understanding Girlfriend and I are entertaining a group of visiting academics from Columbia University and the University of Chicago. Working in the field of International Development, they have been attending a three week workshop in Manchester, and after ten days realised that if they didn't escape the company of everyone else on the program for even just a few hours they were liable to poke out their own eyes with the complimentary pens that came with their orientation packs. Thus they hopped on a plane and came to visit the only people they knew in a 500 mile radius.

It has been an interesting and engaging weekend, a mixture of tourist sightseeing, food and pints, and really heavy conversations on psychology, development, and economists. Not unsurprisingly more than a few ides for blog posts have arisen, but I'll start with why the Web 2.0 bubble is like the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Arising from a need to understand why good people could participate in inhuman acts in the aftermath of the Second World War, in 1971 psychologist Philip Zimbardo took 24 students and ran an experiment in Stanford University. Randomly dividing the group into "guards" and "prisoners" and placing the group in a simulated prison environment for a planned two week-period, the two groups quickly adopted the rolls they had been assigned. The "guards" began to brutalise the "prisoners" without any instigation from Zimbardo, and the "prisoners" quickly became institutionalised and did not attempt to leave the experiment early, even though they were traumatised and started to show signs of mental breakdown. The experiment was shut down after only six days, and so damaging were the long-term affects on the participants that most national Psychology Associations refuse permission for the experiment to be run again.

The ease with which participants either adopted sadistic roles or accepted brutal punishment because of the situation in which they found themselves in has been used to explain the dehumanising behaviour of guards at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, an analysis Zimbardo himself examines in his recent book, "The Lucifer Effect (exploring how good people turn evil)", which I have slowly been making my way through.

Two books that occupied a good portion of my time last year were "Fooled by Randomness" and "The Black Swan", in which Nassim Nicholas Taleb explores the manifestations of randomness in global markets and business environments. His basic argument is stuff just happens, most of which cannot be predicted. Many successful people have simply been in the right place at the right time, and fuelled by the power of their own ego convince themselves that their actions and decisions were responsible for their success. They simply cannot accept the randomness of their situation.

After working for four years in a successful Web 2.0 company I have come to view the environment in which I worked with a healthy dose of cynicism. The success of our company was, as Taleb would put it, "a black swan", difficult to predict but with a big impact on the market around it. The original core group of employees still hold the reins of power within the company, and are treated as rock-star gurus with the organisation, and to some extent within the industry, for creating such a successful company. The trouble is that very few of them had any direct effect on this success, and just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I used to joke with my colleagues that as senior management we were inhibitors, not enablers, that all we really could do was to make things worse and the best way for us to do our jobs was to get out of the way and let the business run itself.

I was definitely in the minority in this opinion; most of the company bought into the mythology that these few were great innovators, and that the company was something special because of them. Only as I was leaving after four years of drinking the kool-aid were questions starting to be raised internally and externally as to why, despite dozens of new products being released each year, had none even come close to replicating the success of our initial big bang. The same leaders were in charge, the same development teams had been bolstered by bringing on board the best and brightest from other companies, attracted by our initial big bang success, but nothing of any significance had happened in the last four years. Our core product got more and more market share, but still looked and functioned as it did at launch; our subsequent products ranged from the loved and useful to the forgotten and derided, but our name was still built upon that original big bang product.

If our leaders were the innovative gurus they believed themselves to be, why could they not replicate this success a second time?

Because sometimes stuff just happens.

This weekend I realised that the Web 2.0 bubble is in fact the Stanford Prison Experiment 2.0. Some companies have been lucky, having a good idea at the right time. The industry and media then label these companies as revolutionary, and their leaders are happy to adopt the mantle of gurus. They are told they are business geniuses, and so act like one. Everyone in their organisations are told that their leaders are geniuses, and so never question the direction they take their companies. Its a shared reality that everyone buys into, plays their assigned roles perfectly, rarely questioning and never thinking to be the one to call out the Emperor's lack of clothing.

The real fun is only just starting now, as these "business geniuses" cash in their stock and move on to other companies or found their own, convinced that lightning will strike twice as they are the gods that posses the bag of lightning bolts. And when the Black Swan fails to raise her head a second time, that is when the Web 2.0 bubble will burst.

Unlike the students in 1971, I managed to leave the experiment. Only time will tell if I was a prisoner, or a guard.

Stanford Prison Experiment
Philip Zimbardo's 'The Lucifer Effect'
Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 'The Black Swan'


At 1:43 pm, Blogger Kate said...

This experiment was re-created for a BBC series ‘The Experiment’ in 2002.


I saw this and was alternately fascinated and horrified by the personality stereotypes that people fell into to quickly and easily. In this case there were multiple safeguards put in place including a round the clock team of psychologists and an ethics committee.

This experiment, at the advice of the ethics committee was also ended pre-maturely – two days ahead of plan after a break out from the prisoners.

Well worth a look.


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