The Stanford Prison Experiment: The Violation Of Ethics

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The Stanford Prison Experiment was a study that was performed in 1971 by the psychology department at Stanford University. Approval to conduct the study was given by three different entities, those were the Office of Naval Research, the Psychology Department at Stanford, and the University Committee of Human Experimentation. The purpose of the study was because they were trying to figure out if the brutality reported by prisoners about the guards in the American prison system was because the guards had sadistic personalities or if it was because of the prison environment (dispositional vs. situational). The participants were randomly selected from over 70 male applicants. They were then interviewed and given a questionnaire to help the researchers eliminate those males with psychological problems, criminal past, medical disabilities, or drug-related problems. They only wanted men with sound minds and bodies to participate. The 24 men that were chosen were divided into two groups with one group being assigned as the guards and the other group assigned as the prisoners. They were assigned roles based on the toss of a coin. 

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The experiment was set to run for 14 days, but it was only fated to run for 6 days. During the 6 days, the guards could, and were even expected to, assume their roles, and treat the prisoners as they would be in a real jail setting. The prisoners were degraded and debased from the beginning. The uniform they were given consisted of a long smock type shirt with their prisoner number on it and a stocking cap, this was to erase the individuality of the prisoners. The guards were given Khaki pants and shirt along with reflective sunglasses to wear. The sunglasses were so that the prisoners would not be able to make direct eye contact with the guards. The guards were told they could punish the prisoners for infractions as they saw fit, barring physical violence. After three days one prisoner was released due to a mental break, he began acting very out of character and became very angry and yelled a lot. He begged them to be released, which he was eventually. At least one more prisoner was released from the experiment after a similar mental break down. The guards even took on different personalities. Some guards became aggressive and others took on the persona of the tough but fair type while others took on the role of the friend, even though some “guards” were horrified at the treatment of the “prisoners” none would speak up to the horrible treatment of the prisoners. It seemed they had become desensitized to the treatment of the prisoners. The Warden who was also the head of the experiment, Zimbardo, recorded and observed all the interactions between guards and prisoners in the six days. This included all “private” conversations between prisoners, guards, and the combination of both. During the 6th day, a psychology student was observing the experiment with Zimbardo and remarked to him, horrified, that it was wrong what the prisoners were being put through. Zimbardo had gotten so lost in the role-playing of the prison warden and he had lost sight of the reasoning behind the study. He had become immersed to the point that even as a psychology professor, he could not see the wrongs being committed to the pseudo prisoners, or the unethical breaches that occurred, even those that occurred from the beginning. Everyone involved in the study had experienced the same immersion into the role as Zimbardo, including the prisoners and guards. The prisoners experienced 2 main processes during the experiment, deindividuation and learned helplessness, these are associated most commonly with first-time prisoners of the real justice system.

The study was given a lot of criticism regarding the ethical perils it fell into, including the lack of complete disclosure to the participants taking part in the study. This is mostly because Zimbardo did not know exactly what would happen in the experiment (the conclusion of the study was unforeseeable). The study may be considered to lack population validity because the sample comprised only of US male students. The study’s findings in this experiment are not indicative of the treatment in female prisons by those guards or people in authority positions in prisons from other countries. Another unethical implementation was that the participants portraying the prisoner entities in the experiment had never consented to be ‘arrested’ at home. They were not told that this would be happening somewhat because the final clearance from the local police was not given until just before the men chosen for the study decided to participate, it was also because the researchers wanted the arrest to be alarming to the prisoners. This breach of ethics came about because of Zimbardo’s contract that all the participants had to sign prior to the experiment beginning. Another breach of ethics in today’s ethical standards was the fact that the participants in the role of prisoners during the study were not safeguarded from any form of “psychological harm, experiencing incidents of humiliation and distress” (McLeod,2020, para. 75). Although the participants did not suffer any long-term effects, the immediate ones were extremely hurtful. Zimbardo did due diligence by following up with the participants after the initial debriefing and interviews, then again after a few weeks, then a few months later, and then at yearly intervals for up to ten years. All in all, the experiment showed the changes a person can go through given the environment and the people surrounding them in said environment. While today’s standards for ethical studies and experiments would have never allowed this to take place, this was, in all honesty, a basis for the ground rules of ethical practices for any and all future experiments and studies. While it was not a fully successful study, it was successful in the point of opening other avenues for future ethical studies and founding the formal recognition process for ethical practices.

References:

  1. McLeod, S. A. (2020, January 21). Zimbardo
07 July 2022

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