Ethics and the Stanford Prison Experiment
In 1971 Philipp Zimbardo carried out one of the most ethically controversial psychological experiment the ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’. Originally he aimed to study how much our behavior is structured by the social role we occupy. Describing the study briefly 24 undergraduates with no criminal and psychological record were chosen for the research to play the roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of Stanford University Psychology Building, equipped by hidden cameras and microphones. As the lead researcher, Zimbardo was observing the events from a different room, giving instructions to the guards. The research was supposed to last about two weeks. However, aggressive and violent behavior quickly appeared on the behalf of the group playing the role of the guards, while prisoners became depressed and passive. Ultimately some of the prisoners were subject to torture. Since the participants assimilated with their role rapidly and provided surprising psychological outcome, Dr Zimbardo shot down the research after 5 days. The experiment meant to demonstrate the power of authority, support of the situational attribution of behavior rather than the dispositional attribution. For forty years it was criticized as well as argued when it came to the relation of ethics and psychology. If it would be carried out today it would fail to meet the Ethical Principals of the Psychologist and Code of Conduct of the American Psychological Association. This paper will discuss the main unethical elements of the Stanford Prison Experiment, such as the violation of privacy and confidentiality, physical and mental harm during an experiment and the researcher’s involvement of the warden role. ‘Some psychological studies produce very surprising results for the researchers and the participants. Sometimes the results are so striking that they challenge our explanations of human behavior and human motivation.’- writes Craig Haney two years after the experiment. Even though the ‘Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison’ only gives a detailed overview of the experiment several unethical treatment can already be observed from the beginning. According to their contract the participants were offered a fifteen-dollar daily payment and were guaranteed basic living needs. In return they were given no instructions of what they shall expect. A few days later Zimbargo obtained the police help to demonstrate the whole arrest of the prisoner group. Participants were captured in their homes unexpectedly by a police car, being handcuffed and charged with crimes. Their pictures as well as their fingerprints were taken; afterwards they were brought to the ‘mock-prison’ blindfolded (p 6). The previously mentioned actions strongly violated their right to privacy. Throughout the experiment participants were put under physical and psychological harm, which strongly would violate the APA code of ethics. Prisoners were not referred by names, but only by numbers and unlike the guards they were not allowed to leave the experiment scene. They spent their days in a 6ft x 9ft prison cell. During the first days the prisoners began to behave according to as they were required rather than using their own judgment and morals. Already on the second day the prisoners suffered humiliation, and punishment. ‘The most striking result of was that apparently normal people could act with abuse and cruelty when placed in a compelling situation. After day one all prisoner’s basic rights became a privilege among them the toilet visits and they were often forced to clean the toilet with their bare hands. ‘(Bredy, Longsdon.p705) The same writing points out how psychological harms had a great impact on the prisoners. On the third day some of the prisoners began to experience severe negative emotions, passive behavior, depression and acute anxiety. Two of them had to be released...
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