Global Crisis/Innovation Blog

How to Kill a 168-year-old Business Without Trying: Murdoch, Sleaze and the Zimbardo Prison Experiment

 By Shlomo Maital

 News of the World: Last Issue.  No Thank You!

 What in the world is the connection between a 40-year-old psychology experiment, that continues to haunt the experimenter, distinguished psychologist Phillip Zimbardo,  and Sunday’s closing of the sleazy yellow tabloid News of the World, after 168 years of continuous operation?

   Let’s start with London’s News of the World, owned by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who owns News Corp.   Journalists tapped into the phone of a murdered teenager and erased messages, to keep the story alive and sell newspapers.  Writing about the mess, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera comments, “Reporters who work at pressure-packed scandal sheets quickly become inured to crossing lines and destroying lives; it’s what they do. On the other hand, it’s still hard to believe that not a single reporter or editor at The News of the World had the sense to realize that tapping into the cellphone of a murdered teenager was deeply wrong.”

   Now back to Zimbardo. 

   In his Stanford prison experiment, run from August 14th to 20th 1971 , twenty-four students were selected out of 75 to play the role of  prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building, while others were told to play ‘officers’ and  torture the prisoners.    Roles were assigned randomly. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond what even Zimbardo himself expected, leading the “Officers”   ultimately to subject some of the prisoners to torture.  Many of the prisoners developed passive attitudes and accepted physical abuse, and, at the request of the guards, readily inflicted punishment on other prisoners who attempted to stop it.    The entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days. The experimental process and the results remain controversial.   

  Zimbardo was surprised that when told to play a role of prison guard and officer, including torture, many of the subjects agreed.  He has found it hard to live down being known as the “prison guy” for the last forty years, and has developed a training program to help young people to defy the ‘everybody does it’ rationale of immoral behavior and instead, act as responsible moral leaders.   Rupert Murdoch should enroll.

   Why did not a single News of the World reporter blow the whistle, protest, inform the police that a serious crime had been committed?   It was the ‘prison’ mentality,  ‘this is what we do, this is how we act, this is the norm, if you’re one of us, you better fall in line’.  The Zimbardo experiment’s result shows the obedience of people, their readiness to do evil, when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support.

     Who created this mentality?  Tycoon Rupert Murdoch himself.  He will escape unscathed.  After closing News of the World – not because his conscience troubled him, but because the paper lost its advertisers and hence had no business raison d’etre —   he will likely (and soon) launch a new scandal sheet under a different name, probably equally profitable and equally devoid of ethics.  Those who buy and read it are as morally blemished as he is.

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