Stanford Prison Experiment

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Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment: Ethical or not?

Chase Clark

University of Massachusetts, Lowell

Abstract

The research conducted in this paper consists of solely the Stanford Prison Experiment, which was originally conducted by the social psychologist, Phillip G. Zimbardo. This experiment replicated a real prison that took students to participate in it. Students role-played the prisoners themselves, and prison guards. It was conducted in the basement of the psychology department on the Stanford University campus in Stanford, California. The experiment turned into an ethical conflict with Zimbardo himself, and society. Cruel behavior coming from the guards dehumanized the prisoners themselves, generally creating a terrible scene to watch. This experiment was mainly conducted to illustrate the cognitive dissonance theory. Prisoners started to become insane and uncomfortable with the mistreatments, causing the unethical experiment to shut down earlier than planned. Why did the prisoners end up acting the way they did? How did the guards feel with that kind of authority over humans? Why didn’t it get shut down even earlier? There is something about this experiment that created such an ethical misunderstanding that forced it to be shut down early. This research will answer all of these questions and more as to what proposed the experiment in the first place and how it happened as it did.

Keywords: cognitive dissonance theory

Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment: Ethical or not?

When experiments are conducted, risking the sanity of human beings on whether or not one could be left permanently damaged mentally or physically, the world may look at that in a negative perspective. This is exactly what Phillip G. Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment brewed up during 1971. What Zimbardo wanted to study is the psychological effects that take place when becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. Learning the developed norms and effects on a human being in a simulated prison environment will help with the understanding of how “doing time” can affect somebody. The study took place in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford University and was funded by the United States Office of Naval Research. The research team, under the supervision of Zimbardo, created a newspaper advertisement in the Palo Alto Times and The Stanford daily, where student would be offered $15.00 per day. One requirement that was made clear is that the participants have to be males. The only thing the research team told the students is that they would be randomly assigned to play the position of a prisoner or prison guard and would be filmed and observed throughout the full two planned weeks of the experiment. There were more than 75 people that responded to the advisement, leading to only 24 being chosen. 9 students would be prisoners (three alternates), and 9 guards (three alternates). The guards would take usually eight-hour shifts, while the prisoners remained in the prison at all hours of the day. The team made sure the participants did not have any previous criminal records, medical conditions and psychological disorders that could possibly throw off the accuracy of the research.

In order for the role-playing to simulate a real prison, every action leading to imprisonment had to be extremely real. Students were arrested at random times, surprising each one of them a their homes. As states, real precautions took place like each of them was handcuffed, read their rights, and rode in the back of a police squad car all the way to the police station. At the station, the prisoners were held for booking and fingerprinting. About half were charged with armed robbery, and the remaining prisoners were charged with burglary. There was a list of 17 rules created prior to the simulation that was required of all prisoners to follow. There was such detail in the rules to extremely stress how real this needed to be for the...
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