The Stanford Prison Experiment and Dysfunctional Academic Labs

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The Stanford Prison Experiment and Dysfunctional Academic Labs

Postby Nate W. » Sat Aug 08, 2015 11:51 am

Maybe I am overdoing it by making a connection between the two situations. However, I'll let you be the judge. When I had to deal with a dysfunctional PI and lab, I thought I was getting a graduate degree in Psychology, not Molecular Biology.

Everyone who has had a bad experience with an academic PI or dysfunctional laboratory should watch the movie:

"The Stanford Prison Experiment"

The same situational psychoses exhibited among guards and prisoners probably exists in a dysfunctional academic research lab, given the pressures of funding, gaining prestige (i.e. respect in the field), publishing in high impact journals, and career growth due to the lack of tenure track positions as well as alternative tracks.

I would even go so far to say the psychoses of researchers in a highly competitive, yet probably dysfunctional, lab has contributed to the rise in scientific misconduct, abnormal personal traits among graduates, grant fraud, plagiarism, bad mentor student relationships, and underemployment of graduates.

It also contribute to the group think among students and postdocs not to report misconduct given the perceived psychological threat that reporting the bad behavior would damage their career.

A dysfunctional lab can truly be a Darwinian environment; which incentives bad behaviors even among good people.

It is a great movie.
Nate W.
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Over the top comparison

Postby P.C. » Sat Aug 08, 2015 12:15 pm

Never the less there is something horribly wrong with the academic pyramid scheme and a large percentage of the PI , "trainee" situation.
All I can say is for young people, foreign and domestic, find a better career.
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain
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Academic Labs

Postby John D. D, » Sat Aug 08, 2015 1:52 pm

I think the 2 relevant things to consider in pyramidal systems are vertical selection pressure, and cohesion.

Once one has moved outside of that geometrical constraint (as I have), the relevant considerations become:
1) resources
2) networks
3) direction
4) motivating people who work with you to stay within the same paradigm long enough to complete a project, publication, etc.

If an individual does not have a perspective outside of the pyramid, it is difficult to assess the influence of the block that one sustains within it, on the whole.

I've seen labs that do have 2 groups of people in them - those who pursue scientific careers, and those who have other interests in the science (perhaps medical, perhaps affirmative action). It wasn't terribly integrated in that sense, but presumably one could have moved from one group to the other through a quantum leap or something. In those situations, I think the potential for psychological difficulty with the situation escalates, and requires some support with integration. There is a sense of entitlement that has to be managed. At the end of the day (graduation from whatever stage), there is the glass ceiling, and a whole lot of people who have been trained to achieve, but will never be allowed to, in the system with defined geometry.
John D. D,
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Re: The Stanford Prison Experiment and Dysfunctional Academic Labs

Postby Nate W. » Sun Aug 09, 2015 8:55 am

John and PC,

Here is another article making a connection: ... periments/

"Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiments (3) and other social psychology research has taught us that ethical behavior is not only shaped by dispositional attribution (an internal moral character), but it is also influenced by many situational (environmental) features. Similarly, our understanding about the causes of research misconduct is shifting from the idea of a few “bad apples” to the realization that the immense pressure to publish and translate research findings, and poor institutional support are factors that influence research misconduct. This is not to excuse misbehavior by researchers; rather, it is about moral responsibility, and research institutions are also accountable in cases of research misconduct. While scholars on research integrity are aware of the responsibility of research institutions, the institutions themselves have taken few measures to promote research integrity and prevent misconduct; they remain virtually blameless in high profile cases of research misconduct (4)"
Nate W.
Posts: 489
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Fed up

Postby John D. D, » Sun Aug 09, 2015 10:09 am

The enticement is from a position of vulnerability to empowerment. The terms and consequences are never articulated. You are right, Nate, ethics are situational. The problem very often is that there are 2 disparate situations involved, only one of which can have a public voice. It's a shame that people just can't work it out, and let everyone move out of the situational dynamic.
John D. D,
Posts: 70
Joined: Sat May 30, 2015 1:53 am

Re: The Stanford Prison Experiment and Dysfunctional Academic Labs

Postby R.M. Allen » Fri Sep 25, 2015 3:22 pm

I have worked in three different countries as an intern, MSc student and PhD student. In all of them I have found one psychopath/malignant narcissist.

When it comes to dysfunctional, no place is safe. Even in industry I had to deal with a female psychopath who tried to steal my job.
R.M. Allen
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