researcher bias

The Stanford Prison Experiment: A Case for Sharing Data

The October 2019 issue of American Psychologist included two articles on the famed Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) condThe Stanford Prison Experimentucted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. The first, “Rethinking the Nature of Cruelty: The Role of Identity Leadership in the Stanford Prison Experiment” (Haslam, Reicher, & Van Bavel, 2019), discusses the outcomes of the SPE within the context of social identity and, specifically, identity leadership theories espousing, among other things, the idea that “when group identity becomes salient, individuals seek to ascertain and to conform to those understandings which define what it means to be a member of the relevant group” (p. 812) and “leadership is not just about how leaders act but also about their capacity to shape the actions of followers” (p. 813). It is within this context that the authors conclude from their examination of the SPE archival material that the “totality of evidence indicates that, far from slipping naturally into their assigned roles, some of Zimbardo’s guards actively resisted [and] were consequently subjected to intense interventions from the experimenters” (p. 820), resulting in behavior “more consistent with an identity leadership account than…the standard role account” (p. 819).

In the second article, “Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment” (Le Texier, 2019), the author discusses his content analysis study of the documents and audio/video recordings retrieved from the SPE archives located at Stanford University and the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron, including a triangulation phase by way of in-depth interviews with SPE participants and a comparative analysis utilizing various publications and texts referring to the SPE. The purpose of this research was to learn whether the SPE archives, participants, and comparative analysis would reveal “any important information about the SPE that had not been included in and, more importantly, was in conflict with that reported in Zimbardo’s published accounts of the study” (p. 825). Le Texier derives a number of key findings from his study that shed doubt on the integrity of the SPE, including the fact that the prison guards were aware of the results Read Full Text

In-depth Interviewer Effects: Mitigating Interviewer Bias

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 83-84).

The outcome of a qualitative in-depth interview (IDI) study, regardless of mode, is greatly affected by the interviewer’s conscious or unconscious influence within the context of the IDIs—that is, the absence or presence of interviewer bias. The interviewer’s Interviewer Effects-Biasdemographic characteristics (e.g., age, race), physical appearance in face-to-face IDIs (e.g., manner of dress), voice in face-to-face and telephone IDIs (e.g., a regional accent), and personal values or presumptions are all potential triggers that may elicit false or inaccurate responses from interviewees. For example, imagine that an IDI study is being conducted with a group of public school teachers who are known to harbor negative feelings toward the district’s superintendent but who express ambivalent attitudes in the interviews as the result of the interviewers’ inappropriate interjection of their own personal positive opinions. In this way, the interviewers have caused the findings to be biased. In order to minimize this potential source of distortion in the data, the researcher can incorporate a number of quality enhancement measures into the IDI study design and interview protocol:

  • The IDI researcher should conduct a pretest phase during which each interviewer practices the interview and learns to anticipate what Sands and Krumer-Nevo (2006) call “master narratives” (i.e., the interviewer’s own predispositions) as well as “shocks” that may emerge from interviewees’ responses. Such an awareness of one’s own predispositions as an interviewer and possible responses from interviewees that might otherwise “jolt” the interviewer will more likely facilitate an uninterrupted interview that can smoothly diverge into other appropriate lines of questioning when the time presents itself. In this manner, the interviewer can build and maintain strong rapport with the interviewee as well as anticipate areas within the interview that might bias the outcome.

For example, Sands and Krumer-Nevo (2006) relate the story of a particular interview in a study among youth who, prior to the study, had been involved in drug use and other criminal behavior. Yami, the interviewer, approached one of the interviews with certain assumptions concerning the interviewee’s educational background and, specifically, the idea that a low-level education most likely contributed to the youth’s illicit activities. Because of these stereotypical expectations, Yami entered the interview with the goal of linking the interviewee’s “past school failures” to his current behavior and was not prepared for a line of questioning that was not aimed at making this connection. As a result Read Full Text

Strengths & Limitations of the In-depth Interview Method: An Overview

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 56-57).


The potential advantages or strengths of the in-depth interview (IDI) method reside in three key areas: (1) the interviewer–interviewee relationship, (2) the interview itself, and (3) the analytical component Two people talkingof the process. The relative closeness of the interviewer–interviewee relationship that is developed in the IDI method potentially increases the credibility of the data by reducing response biases (e.g., distortion in the outcomes due to responses that are considered socially acceptable, such as “I attend church weekly,” acquiescence [i.e., tendency to agree], and satisficing [i.e., providing an easy “don’t know” answer to avoid the extra cognitive burden to carefully think through what is being asked]) and nonresponse, while also increasing question–answer validity (i.e., the interviewee’s correct interpretation of the interviewer’s question).

An additional strength of the IDI method is the flexibility of the interview format, which allows the interviewer to tailor the order in which questions are asked, modify the question wording as appropriate, ask follow-up questions to clarify interviewees’ responses, and use indirect questions (e.g., the use of projective techniques) to stimulate subconscious opinions or recall. It should be noted, however, that “flexibility” does not mean a willy-nilly approach to interviewing, and, indeed, the interviewer should employ quality measures such as those outlined in “Applying a Quality Framework to the In-depth Interview Method.”

A third key strength of the IDI method—analyzability of the data—is a byproduct of the interviewer–interviewee relationship and the depth of interviewing techniques, which produce a granularity in the IDI data that is rich Read Full Text