Learning From The Experiment

First published August 2002

This article was first published in the July 2002 edition of The Psychologist, a publication of the British Psychological Society, and is reproduced with permission.

Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam recently conducted a major study with the BBC (The Experiment). Pam Briggs (Chair of the British Psychological Society Press Committee) sought their views on the ethical and practical issues.

Q: What ethical lessons did you learn from The Experiment

A: We felt that it demonstrated that it is possible to do large-scale studies in a way that allows researchers to address big issues without inevitably compromising ethical principles. Notwithstanding the fact that the independent ethics panel described the handling of the study’s ethics as “exemplary”, televising the research obviously brought a whole range of new issues into play. And while we think that some of the strategies we employed were successful (such as having pre-broadcast input into the programmes by participants and the ethics panel), it is evident that other lessons will have to be taken on board. Hopefully, we have provided a reasonable framework with which to proceed.

Q: How did the balance of control work between you and the BBC?

A: We addressed this while obtaining ethical approval for the study and it was written into our contracts with the BBC. It was agreed that we would design, run and analyse the study, and the BBC would tell our analytic account in a way that made for accessible television. We never encountered a problem of goodwill on this matter. The BBC were as committed to the science as we were – for them this is what made the project distinctive and worthwhile.

However, we did encounter problems of translation from the science to the television because, at the start of the project, we knew very little about the practicalities of television and the producers, technicians and executives at the BBC knew little about psychological science. By the end, though, we were working as an integrated team and looked upon the programme as a collective product to which we and the participants all had a significant shared commitment.

Q: Do you think the presence of the cameras affected the scientific results?

A: Obviously at various points in the study, particularly at the beginning, the participants were aware of the TV cameras and this affected their behaviour. However, they were sensitive to other forms of surveillance too – from members of their own group, from rival groups and, most keenly, from us, the experimenters.

For us, our goal was to provide theoretical accounts of behaviour that take into account these factors rather than dismiss them as inconsequential, Indeed, the impact of surveillance should be understood as part of the subject matter of psychological research, not as something that invalidates it. Understanding how surveillance affects behaviour is a key topic for social psychologists. It is very odd to suggest that the “real” person is the hermit, the isolate. Human beings are social animals and surveillance is part of our social reality.

Q: At the start of the programme the commentary said that the “prisoners” arrived with no idea what was going to happen to them. Was this the case? Is truly informed consent possible when making good TV?

A: The participants were unaware of what was going to happen to them in the same way that someone going to a football match doesn’t know in advance what the result will be. However, they were aware that they would be entering a closed system in which there would be two groups, one with more power than the other and that the environment would be challenging, might involve hunger, hardship and anger, and would resemble a barracks, a prison or a bootcamp. They were also aware that they could leave at any time. Interestingly, after the event, a number of the participants expressed disappointment because the study was far less stressful than they had been led to expect.

Informing participants about the consequences of appearing on television was far harder, because we had even less idea what these might be. However, our consent form did refer to the fact that being recognized and talked about in public could be distressing. In selection interviews the clinical psychologists also alerted potential participants to potential risks and assessed their ability to cope with these.

Q: Did the finished product accurately reflect the science behind it?

A: The television programmes were very faithful to what we saw as the key events in the study – that is, those that made important theoretical points and that drove the study on. Having said this, it was always obvious both to us and to the BBC that the programmes could only ever be a window on to the science. We hope people will want to know more and will be led into the discipline that way.

We also hope that the series will encourage people to engage in the debates about what happened and to reflect in a more informed way on the relevance of social psychology to their daily lives. We always saw the programmes as just one part of our output from the study, and we will be writing a book, book chapters and journal articles in which the data and theory are addressed in more depth.

Q: Were you happy with the public reaction?

A: If by “public” one means the representation of the study in the media, then we were often disappointed. Much of this came down to worrying misunderstandings of the nature of science and scientific argument. For instance, many journalists failed to understand that we were not purporting to set up a real prison and thereby mirror what happens in prisons, rather we were investigating the psychology of group inequality and it was the reality of that inequality for participants that concerned us. Others argued that the participants’ knowledge that they were being observed must make their behaviour invalid, unreal or irrelevant, while for us this fact made it more interesting. In the end though, the fact that these criticisms were made was less troubling than the fact that many journalists never sought out our views and assumed we had never thought of them ourselves.

However, if by public one means the reactions of viewers then the reaction we received was very positive indeed. Indeed the webchat after the first programme was the most successful (in terms of number of people logged on) that the BBC has ever done. Two groups of people were particularly interested: those working in occupations whose experiences mapped on to those of the participants (e.g. teachers, managers, trade unionists) and who commented on the fact that the study explored issues germane to their daily lives; and students who were studying issues related to the Stanford prison study and appreciated the new dimensions to debate that our study provided.

Q: Were you happy with the reaction from fellow psychologists?

A: Before the programme was televised the only information that most of our peers has was based on a number of rather lurid and inaccurate press reports, so quite reasonably they had concerns. But we received a tremendous amount of support from colleagues going into the project (without which we would not have been able to proceed). Moreover, post-broadcast reaction has also been very positive. Clearly we expect that some people will have a different analysis of the study’s outcomes from ours, but one of its unusual features is that some of our core behavioural data is in the public domain. As a result, the prospects for open debate and informed discussion of the important issues raised by the study are much greater than is normally the case.

Q: Is this the way forward for psychology?

A: Of course it isn’t the way forward; but it may add another option, for three reasons. First, without funding from the BBC, we could never have dreamed of doing a study on this scale. Second, without BBC technology we could never have got such a complete recording of all that was said and done. Third, without BBC broadcasting we could never have got such a large audience to engage with social psychology. However, we recognize that such projects need to be handled with considerable care and will only be advantageous in very specific circumstances. Indeed, our own objective will be to continue doing “standard” forms of research (e.g. experiments, field studies) to test the ideas that informed and grew out of this project.

Q: If the Society were to set up ethical guidelines specifically pertaining to televised experiments, what would be the most important points to cover?

A: This was probably the most difficult issue we encountered in the whole project. Part of the problems stemmed from the difficulty of getting people to be fully aware of the consequences of being on television. For instance, there are many behaviours that are perfectly fair in the context of one relationship but which violate the norms of a different relationship. Where one puts the two together, it can be deeply embarrassing. Would you want your behaviour with your parents or your children to be shown to your students? It will be very useful to discuss with the participants exactly what problems the broadcast created that they hadn’t expected and to use that to better prepare people in future.

A second issue had to do with media misrepresentations. There were many cases when papers misreported what one participant had said (or what we had said) and such comment had the capacity to cause concern to other participants. This problem could clearly be exacerbated to the extent that the untruth was not immediately corrected. Better briefings about these issues and “rapid response” to press stories is absolutely crucial.

The third, and biggest issue, is what happens when participants do things they genuinely regret – or else learn things about themselves they would rather not know – and these are then broadcast widely? If broadcasting raises ethical problems, then not broadcasting could be equally problematic because it could misrepresent why others behaved as they did. There is no easy answer to this question. Our solution was to involve the participants in the analysis such that they could all agree (as indeed they did at the viewing of the final versions) that the resultant account was truthful, fair and had analytic integrity. In this regard, it was also our goal to repeatedly relate behaviour to context rather than to make reductive comments about individuals – all of whom were chosen for their positive psychological characteristics.