Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, May 1, 2001
Psychologist puts the 'real' into reality TV


Reality TV shows like "Survivor" and "Big Brother" may have captured the attention of millions of Americans, but how real are they?

According to psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo, the programs are misleading. "The thing I hate most about 'Survivor' is that it promotes the worst aspects of human behavior and the wrong human values," he said.

However, the shows are fascinating to the general public, and Zimbardo hopes this voyeuristic tendency will help him bring more valuable and real psychology to the public.

Zimbardo recently served as chief scientific adviser for a new reality show called "The Human Zoo," a program designed to highlight aspects of human behavior and social interaction for the audience in a positive and constructive way. Produced by London Weekend Television and aired in April on the Discovery Channel, "The Human Zoo" is closer to a psychology experiment than to "Survivor."


Prison experiment


Zimbardo has been in the public eye since conducting his classic Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Twenty-four college students volunteered to act as either inmates or guards in a mock prison in the basement of a Stanford psychology building. The two-week experiment, designed to investigate what happens when you put good people in an evil place, had to be terminated prematurely after only six days because the participants had become too engrossed in their simulated roles. Much like a reality TV show, the experiment was observed and taped with a hidden camera.

"The Human Zoo" is based on the same premise of observing ordinary people in novel situations. Twelve volunteers were selected to spend a week together in a lodge in a remote part of England. They consented to be filmed while participating in a study of human behavior. In addition to a three-member video crew, the house was full of hidden cameras that recorded the social interactions of the "houseguests."

Zimbardo was integral in laying out scenarios for the participants that would effectively demonstrate likely psychological concepts such as the herd mentality. Along with a British psychologist, Zimbardo analyzed the emerging behavior patterns. They made predictions about what was likely to happen next, so that the audience could better understand the subtle complexities as they watched.

One scenario involved splitting the group into an "A" team and a "B" team. Members of the "A" team were given red shirts and red jerseys bearing the letter "A," while the "B" team dressed in blue. What had been a friendly atmosphere among the volunteers disintegrated immediately as participants began to identify positively with their own team members and to bicker with the opposing team. When a member of the "A" team tried to be friendly with members of the opposition, she was scolded by her teammates and called a traitor until she conformed to the expectations of the group and snubbed the other team.


'Candid Camera'


Zimbardo also helped to design separate "Candid Camera"-style experiments to illustrate how behavior observed in the lodge is similar to behavior in other real-world situations. The power of the group to diffuse responsibility in an emergency was demonstrated by bringing a volunteer into a room full of actors pretending to complete a questionnaire for a focus group. As soon as the volunteer began filling out a survey, smoke would start emanating from an adjoining room and a fire alarm would sound to give the impression that the building was on fire. None of the actors responded to the emergency. Instead, they remained in the room for an average of 13 minutes doing nothing, despite billowing smoke and ringing alarms.

According to Zimbardo, the volunteers were willing to put their own lives at risk just to go along with the group. In contrast, those who were alone in the room when the alarm went off reacted immediately by leaving.

Other psychological concepts illustrated in "The Human Zoo" include first impressions, nonverbal behavior, social attraction, group dominance, lie detection, the power of size and beauty, and social influence.

"Each of these demonstrations is based on one or a series of classic, earlier psychological studies," Zimbardo said. "It's almost a whole course in social psychology."

Zimbardo hopes that tapes of "The Human Zoo" eventually will be available for teaching purposes, just as his documentary about the Stanford Prison Experiment is used around the world in psychology classrooms. He says that the Discovery Channel is waiting for ratings data from the first two episodes of the show before deciding whether to air the third episode, in which group power erupts and "nice people begin behaving like fascists."

Zimbardo sees reality TV as a logical format for teaching psychology. "The reason reality TV is so popular is because to observe human behavior is fascinating," he observed. "I spend my whole life doing this."

"The Human Zoo" is not Zimbardo's first involvement with television. He designed, co-wrote and hosted a television series called "Discovering Psychology," now being updated for a fall showing on PBS. He also was the senior psychological consultant and on-screen analyst for a recently aired BBC-TV program on human rights called "Five Steps to Tyranny." Producers at NBC's "Dateline" have contacted Zimbardo about contributing to psychology-based programming they have planned.

"The media is the gatekeeper between psychology and the public," Zimbardo remarked.

As president-elect of the American Psychology Association, Zimbardo says one of his goals is to "promote a positive view of psychology as a discipline committed to improving the quality of our lives as individuals and as a society."

"My whole life is about giving psychology away to the public," he said.


Betsy Mason is a science writing intern with Stanford News Service.