I pose the question, was the Stanford Prison Experiment ethical or not? If your answer is no, then you agree with me. I refer to the Stanford Experiment in an effort to show the psychological effects prison has on everyone, not just the prisoners. Correctional psychologists are exposed to the same stressors as the correctional officers, and even worse, are put into dual roles as officer and psychologist. The Stanford Prison Experiment was successful in showing that when and individual is placed in a position of authority, they can change drastically and assume authoritative stances that border on abuse. These roles have a commonality with an average psychologist who is called upon to conduct a head count during an evening shift and act as a psychologist by day, creating a dual role as well as creating a psychological challenge for the correctional psychologist. The two roles can become taxing and stressful, rendering the psychologist ineffective in his primary role of therapist. Unethical situations run rampant in the correctional system and we will visit the Stanford Prison Experiment to ponder some of these issues.
In 1971, psychologist Phillip G. Zimbardo began what was to be a two week experiment that ended abruptly within six days due to extreme stress and depression on the part of the participants acting in the role of prisoners. For $15.00 per day, twenty-four (24) college students voluntarily participated in a study to examine the psychological effects of prison life. The students were middle-class, white males from the U.S. and Canada. The study was conducted in a make-shift, simulated prison in Palo Alto, California. The twenty-four students were randomly assigned to either the prisoner or guard role. Guards were dressed in khakis, given night sticks, as well as mirrored sunglasses that were worn to obscure any emotions and to avoid any real eye contact. They quickly became comfortable in their roles of power, and began to exert force upon their fellow classmates. During head-count, the guards took advantage of this time to exercise their control over the prisoners as the prisoners attempted to maintain some sense of their own control.
Ultimately, the guards became abusive, dehumanizing, and the prisoner's began to show extreme levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. As Kendry Cherry states in her article entitled, The Stanford Prison Experiment, An Experiment in the Psychology of Imprisonment, " Even the researcher's themselves began to lose sight of the situation. Zimbardo, who acted as prison warden, overlooked the guard's abusive behavior until graduate student Christina Maslach voiced her objections to the morality of continuation of the study".
The study was terminated on August 20, 1971. There was no official "debriefing" of the students (prisoner's and guards) and while the prisoners were happy it was over, the guards appeared upset that the study was ending. Basically, the guards had become so "drunk" on their power status that they did not want it to end. The prisoners (students) were left victimized, damaged, and suffered the effects of the stress that continued long after the study ended. The students had no idea what they were really getting themselves into and were deceived and ultimately traumatized by the study.
Following is the laundry list of violations to the Code of Ethics and General Principles that this experiment involved:
General Principle's not adhered to by this study:
- Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence - to do good and avoid harm
- Principle B: Fidelity and Responsibility - to show high standards of competence in their work
- Principle C: Integrity - honest communication and truth telling
- Principle D: Justice
- Principle E: Respect for People's Rights and Dignity
- Standard 2.01a, 2.01c, Boundaries of Competence
- Standard 3.04, Avoiding Harm
- Standard 3.05, Multiple Roles (Phillip Zimbardo functioning in two roles: in charge of experiment and participating as the warden)
- Standard 3.08, Exploitive Relationships
- Standard 3.06, Conflict of Interest (Phillip Zimbardo functioning in two roles: in charge of experiment and participating as the warden)
- Standard 8.02a (1,2,3,4), Informed Consent to Research
- Standard 8:04, Client/Patient, Student, and Subordinate Research Participants
- Standard 8.07a & 8.07b, Deception in Research
- Standard 8.08a, b, & c, Debriefing
The Stanford Prison Experiment would not be allowed to be conducted today due to the plethora of violations to the code of ethics. It is a valuable lesson to be learned in the field of psychology. Please click on the hyperlink in the first sentence to visit the website for the Stanford Prison Experiment.
The Stanford Prison Experiment, An Experiment in the Psychology of Imprisonment
By Kendra Cherry, About.com Guide (retrieved 9/27/12)
Stanford Prison Experiment - http:www.prisonexp.org (retrived 9/27/12)