Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment”

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Last updated: February 22, 2019

Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment” explored issues of social roles and obedience.

  The experiment utilized about 20 college-aged men.  The men were divided into groups of guards and prisoners in a prison-like environment.  The experiment was to be as realistic as possible, so the prisoners were “arrested” at home, taken in to the “jail,” stripped of their identification, deloused, and given uniforms.  During the course of the experiment, the prisoners were consistently degraded and dehumanized by the guards.  The guards could not physically harm the prisoners, but they could mete out punishment.

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They became aggressive, while the prisoners became passive.  Eventually, the guards’ behavior got somewhat out of hand and the experiment had to be stopped.  As Zimbardo (2008) states, “We had to release three prisoners in the first four days because they had such acute situational traumatic reactions.”  Both guards and prisoners fully embraced their roles in the experiment.  It is the opinion of this report that the “Prison Experiment” was research into the nature of prejudice, with ethical flaws which could have been solved in various ways.

In Zimbardo’s famous experiment, the researcher divided a population into guards and prisoners and extreme prejudice developed between the groups, leading to violence and the cancellation of the experiment.  The experiment became extreme, went out of control, and yielded results that could be considered unethical, but it was set up as an ethical experiment.  The participants were assured that there would be no physical harm because the guards were told that this would be forbidden.

  Even though taking prisoners’ blankets, using the fire extinguishers, and making them do physically punishing exercises constituted only minor physical harm, many of the prisoners fell apart psychologically.  And one guard stated that “I lashed out with my stick and hit him in the chin (although not very hard, and when I freed myself I became angry.  Acting authoritatively can be fun” (Zimbardo, 2008).  The experiment was also designed to follow up with its participants so that those who might have been adversely affected would be recognized and helped.All of the participants were voluntarily included in the experiment, and they were also paid a small amount on a daily basis.  One ethical breach aside from the fact that some participants were psychologically or physically harmed could be that the subjects were deceived.

  This would be hard to prove, though, since it is not clear that even those conducting the experiment were cognizant of what was going to happen.  Still, the experiment could have been curtailed earlier than it was when subjects who were prisoners started to show extreme psychological stress and the guards started to act with authoritative abandon and lacked restraint.One potential solution to these problems would be the establishment of a mock training program for the guards.  As it was, the guards “made up their own formal rules for maintaining law, order, and respect, and were generally free to improvise new ones” (Zimbardo, 2008).  If the experiment was truly set up to mimic real-world conditions, the guards would have been given at least nominal training in rules that they had to follow, rather than being told that they were free to make up their own rules as long as they didn’t physically harm the prisoners (which some of them did anyway).  Therefore, a more rigid sort of training program for the guards may have decreased obsessive behavior about authority while still maintaining the parameters of the experiment:  a solution would be to give the guards limited authority under the rules of the warden, or to set them up in a mock training program, rather than giving them absolute authority over the prisoners.  If this is seen to be against the principles of the experiment, then the study could be curtailed in terms of time so that the prisoners and guards don’t get excessively involved in their roles.

  Instead of role-playing for eight hours per day every day, at first they could start with four hours, and then gradually work up to more time, if things do not go out of control.Zimbardo showed the logical fallacy of the ethical breach within an experiment about how social situations can be bigger than the people involved in them.  Personal identity gets caught up in the social role and changed by it.  So the point of the research was to prove that these social roles are more important than personality under the conditions of a prison-like atmosphere.  The guards were the authority, and they got out of hand; the prisoners were told what to do, and they did what they were told.  The experiment says a lot about how unimportant individuality is under certain circumstances where conformity, obedience, and the ability to accept conformity are the most important things.In analysis one can deal with the psychologist Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment to look at themes of prejudice.

  In looking at Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment,” it is evident that a discussion of prejudice should be taken from this experiment, since the results were shown to be to the detriment of many of the participants.  Even though they signed contracts and participated voluntarily in the study, the subjects did not really know at that time what was in store for them.  And it seems that violations start when the cardinal rule of ethics is broken and participants are psychologically or physically harmed, or both.  It was a controversial experiment, because it also garnered many useful results regarding social conditioning environments and prejudice.  Some potential solutions to the problems that caused the experiment to go awry and be stopped after a week could include a de-scaling of the intensity of the experience, starting with comparatively small amounts of time role-playing (not eight hours per day right away) or providing breaks.

In conclusion, in the real world, prison guards and correction officers are trained, so a sort of mock training program could have been included to solve some of the experiment’s problems, instead of just giving them a few parameters and carte blanche.  The ethical implications of the “Stanford Prison Experiment” are manifold:  mainly, the debate seems to be whether the organizers of the experiment were warranted in risking harming some of their subjects because there was no other way to get the results.  The ethical violations that occurred in the case were many.   The experiment was supposed to be about social roles, prejudice, and obedience, with as mentioned, a group of about 20 college-aged men being divided into groups of guards and prisoners.  On the second day, guards sprayed fire-extinguishers in the cells while the prisoners were in sight.  The prisoners were forced to do exhausting exercises as punishment, and sometimes were made to sleep without blankets.

  They became dazed and dehumanized by the guards, who reported feelings of pride.  Even the most obedient prisoners were punished.  People were psychologically harmed.  In my opinion, this is the chief ethical violation involved in the “StanfordPrison Experiment,” is that which is only concerned with how it exemplifies prejudice.REFERENCEZimbardo (2008) Stanford Prison Experiment.



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