The Experiment Details
The Stanford Prison Experiment is a landmark experiment that addresses the issue of power and abuse. The experiment reflects a common phenomenon in the society where individuals put in powerful positions such as prison guard abuses their power in a startling cruel manner. The primary objective for Zimbardo in the experiment was to investigate the major factor contributing to brutality reported among the prison guards in the United States. The two main factors being investigated include the dispositional factors (sadistic personality) or situational factors (the prison environment). From the study, it is clear that prison guards lack the required moral standards and the element of humanity as portrayed through their cruel acts against the prisoners. Those in authority seem not to show any remorse of their inhuman act, instead, they are bolstering themselves for their unethical acts. The study established that people readily social roles particularly the stereotyped roles by placing the participants in a real prison environment and observing how this situation impacted their behavior.
The experiment involved 24 male participants that were either given the prison guard role or the prisoner role. The Stanford University Psychology building’s basement was modified to look like a real prison setting and the participants were put in there. As the experiment continued, highly aggressive and brutal acts were observed among those given the prison guard roles. Those assigned prisoners portrayed extremely submissive behavior and became too dependent on the guards. It is important to note that at the initial of the experiment, none of the participants depicted sadistic traits. It was, therefore, concluded that situational factors have higher influence on human behavior more than dispositional factors as the behavior of the guards and the prisoners was primarily determined to the environment in which they were exposed and the role that were assigned to them.
The Ethical Perspective
There are many ethical questions that rise in relation to how the experiment was conducted. First, there is the element of lack of informed consent among the participant as the researcher himself was not clear about what to expect in the study. The ‘prisoners’ did not consent to being arrested from their homes. They were caught off-guard. One of the main reasons for not informing the prisoners about the arrest was that the police’s final approval came few minutes after the participants agreed to take part in the experiment. Also, the research wanted the arrest to occur as a surprise like in a real world situation. This situation resulted in breaching of ethical standards as described between the contract signed by the participants.
Also, the experiment is criticized for going against two most significant APA ethical principles; the principle of Beneficence and Non-maleficence and that of Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity. According to the first principle, it is a requirement that an experiment takes keen interest on the subjects including the animal subjects and other professionals involved by preserving their rights (Griggs, 2014). Beneficence (do goo) requires that benefits to be accorded to individuals as well as contributing to their wellbeing. On the other hand, Non-maleficence (do not harm) describes the responsibility of not intentionally inflicting harm to individuals. However, as it can be evident, the research was more concerned of the research than the subject a factor that made them go through excruciating experiences with the prison guards. It both inflicted emotional and physical harm as well as did not give the prisoners’ welfare the first priority. The participants were not protected from the impeding psychological harm. They were subjected through distress and humiliation. For instance, there was an incident where a prisoner was to be released due to uncontrolled anger, crying and screaming. The torture and mistreatment faced by the subjects is a violation of the Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity principle.
However, the researcher defended himself against the ethical claims that it was difficult to predict the emotional distress experienced by the participants (Zimbardo, 2016). The research was also approved by the relevant authorities that could also not predict the adverse psychological outcome. If the outcomes were predicted, then the researchers would look for alternative methods that would cause less or no harm to the participants while still producing the desirable results.
Was it Right to Trade the Participants’ Experience?
Though the research was successful in understanding human behavior and depicting a clear picture of the prison situation, it was unethical to subject the participants under humiliating and distressing condition. It is widely accepted that proper organization and operation within a social environment can be achieved through adequate understanding of the human behavior. Therefore, the significance of the experiment cannot be underestimated especially when it comes to the management of the human behavior within social settings. For example, the knowledge that situational factors have the highest influence on the brutal and aggressive behavior law enforcement officers and prison guards can be used to review the operational setting and create an environment that favor more humane acts among the individuals in the sector (Zimbardo, 2016). Hence, various means that involve the transformation of situation and social environment can be applied to manage behavior. However, the biggest concern in the experiment is the means used to achieve the knowledge.
Despite thee good intensions of the researcher who designed the experiment to conduct a credible study, the psychological distress and physical abuse that took place in the prison was extremely unethical. Nevertheless, it is prudent to note that if some ground rules were set for the prison guards, the results obtained would not have been as accurate as expected. Therefore, although the knowledge gained through the study was useful and somehow accurate, it was not worth the participants’ suffering. Most of what the prisoners experienced is not what they had volunteered to do. No one should have fallen victim of an experiment. Human right, dignity and wellbeing should come before anything else (Griggs, 2014). Also, Zimbado himself realized that the experiment was unethical and decided to end it after six days. Therefore, despite the great significance of the information gained from the study, it was absolutely wrong to trade the participants’ experience.
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Griggs, R. A. (2014). Coverage of the Stanford Prison Experiment in introductory psychology textbooks. Teaching of Psychology, 41(3), 195-203.
Zimbardo, P. (2016). Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment: A lesson in the power of situation. Perspectives on Contemporary Issues, 309-317.