Monday, October 29, 2012

The Stanford Prison Experiment - Ethical or Not?


 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

Code Violations:

  • 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 , Guide (retrieved 9/27/12)

Stanford Prison Experiment - (retrived 9/27/12)



  1. WOW, what a blog entry. You used a live hyper link (bravo), told the history of an important study, reviewed ethical principles, and uncovered so many broken codes. I love this entry and learned from it!

  2. Hi, I hope this topic isn't dead!

    I am not sure if I agree with you since I think that if the Stanford study was ethical or not is not even a question. The only question I still have, the one I can't understand, is why didn't Dr. Zimbardo go to jail? He did much worse than unethical research: he denied the subjects the right to exit the study, one of the pre-agreed conditions. The moment he did that the unethical study turned into outright kidnap. I am not exaggerating that in the very least; by Dr Zimbardo own admition he even conspired to re-kidnap one of the subjects he had allowed to leave on mental illness grounds ( i.e., the subject was screaming and crying uncontrollably). Please note that all subjects have been tested prior to the study and found mentally and physically sane. And I have all that from Dr. Zimbardo himself!

    I do like your code violation list. Great job for posting.

    Oh, and maybe someone can answer my question.

  3. At the time it was considered by the APA board that all requirements for his experiment to have been met. This was decided in 1973.

  4. While I do agree that the experiment was unethical, it did help to create new ethical guidelines to protect future psychology experiment participants.

    To make a correction, the participants, both prisoners and guards were debriefed. There were also no long term effects of the experiment due to the pyschological screening process at the start of the experiment. Since all participants were psychologically healthy at the onset of the experiment, they were able to bounce back fairly well. Zimbardo and colleagues also followed up with participants periodically for 10 years after the experiment ended to ensure that there were no lasting effects.

  5. As a psychologist.....The study is the unfortunate antecedent to the torture our profession engaged in, in Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In the zimbardo case, research was paramount, subjects were deceived and abused, and harm was real. Whether real long term physical, emotional and mental health effects were evidenced is really an insufficient and irrelevant factor. What is a shock is how in both cases, this research and the Middle East wars, these psychologists feel the end justifies the means. Appalling. Today the APA banned all psychologists from participating in any national security agency activities, coercive or no coercive. Late, lame, and shameful.

  6. I do agree that it was unethical but left so much to discuss for all of us and made us realize the life of prisoners as they are human too. Today we atleast can imagine the stressful conditions of prisoners and know that such treatment can only bring negativity not the betterment in the prisoners behavior.

  7. I do agree that it was unethical but left so much to discuss for all of us and made us realize the life of prisoners as they are human too. Today we atleast can imagine the stressful conditions of prisoners and know that such treatment can only bring negativity not the betterment in the prisoners behavior.

  8. do you have any references to back this critical evaluation up?

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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