Is Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment really that unethical?

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Ethics are very important when conducting research with both animal subjects and human participants.  They are used to ensure the safety of the participants and to establish sensible boundaries of research.  Psychologists must abide by the code of ethics and conduct (BPS, 2009) consisting of 4 main principles; respect, competence, responsibility, and integrity, each of which has its own set of values.  There are 6 values often considered the most important.

Informed consent- Participants must be fully informed about what is expected of them during the study and what will happen. This information must be understood as well as just presented before voluntary consent is obtained.  Issues can arise when deception is used.

Right to withdraw- Participants should be aware that they can leave the study at any point with no penalty and request that their data is not used.

Confidentiality- Participants’ data must be kept confidential and only accessible to investigators involved with the study.

Deception- Researchers can withhold certain information from participants when it is required to maintain the integrity of the study.  Any deception must be justified and explained to participant in debriefing.

Debrief- Participants must be informed about the nature of the study, and if deception has been used this must be fully explained in order to ensure that participants leave in the same psychological state as they arrived.

Protection from harm- Researchers must eliminate potential risks to maintain physical and psychological well-being of the participants.  Consideration for the effects of age, disability, religion etc must be taken into account.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) is considered very controversial, as the results were really valuable to the progression of psychological research, but there are also many criticisms about it, mainly concerning ethics.  This study is considered the 8th most unethical psychological study carried out (Listverse, 2008).  But is the study really that unethical, or are the results just so shocking that we want to find a way to disregard the research? Using the criteria described above I shall explain why this experiment is not as unethical as many people believe.

Informed consent- Each participant was given an information sheet about the study and told that if selected as a prisoner they would have their usual rights taken away and would be living in minimally acceptable conditions.  After completing a consent form they also had a preliminary interview where participants who had anxiety issues and similar were encouraged not to participate due to the effects of the study, therefore informed consent was obtained.

Right to withdraw- Participants were informed that they could leave the study if they wished to do so, however as they were acting in a prison environment they were told that it would not appear as if they could easily leave so must be done through established procedures.  Participants forgot this when taking part as the ringleader of the prisoners attempted to leave but misinterpreted what he was told so believed none of them could leave.  Therefore participants were initially aware of their right to withdraw, even if they did forget this during the study.

Confidentiality- All information from the study was coded to ensure confidentiality.  Participants were also asked to complete a release form for their video footage to be used.  Prisoners also known by their ID number during the experiment therefore remained anonymous to other members and to those who view the video footage. This means that confidentiality was maintained.

Deception- There was no deception used as participants were informed that their usual rights would be taken away and under what conditions they would be living in.  They were also informed about the nature of the study and were told the rules that they must abide by. In hindsight it may be considered that participants did not know all the information about what would happen in the study, however the researchers did not anticipate the type of behaviour that occurred therefore they were not withholding information or deceiving participants.

Debrief- All participants were given a full debrief after the study and fully explained what was expected to be found and why the study was finished early.  Their psychological state was also analysed.

Protection from harm- A preliminary interview and assessments were performed to establish who were not fit to participate in the study, thus reducing potential risks.  Not all risks in the study could be reduced as they were not anticipated.  Participants’ psychological state was tested at the end of the study and on many occasions since and it has been found that none have suffered from long term trauma.  Therefore, although participants were exposed to temporary distress during the study it was not permanent so may be considered acceptable.

The SPE was proposed to a human review committee to evaluate the ethics of the study before it began, and the experiment gained approval.  2 years after the study was conducted the ethics were evaluated by the APA and concluded that ethical guidelines had been followed.

We must take into consideration that ethical guidelines were not as thorough when the study was conducted, and it is experiments like the SPE that have led us to believe that humans are more fragile than previously expected.  However, from using today’s ethical guidelines it can be suggested that the study was not as unethical as many people make it out to be, and it does follow the BPS guidelines.  It could be suggested that participants were not fully protected from harm, but as this distress was only temporary do the ends justify the means? If it wasn’t for experiments like these we would not have the strict ethical guidelines we have today!

For those of you who are particularly interested in the SPE the video below is a BBC documentary about the study which includes talking to Zimbardo and the participants from the study. You can also find a lot of information about the study on this website.

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8 responses »

  1. I really like the question you pose as to whether we try and discredit the study simply because the findings are shocking and highlight the negative, scary side of humanity. This is obviously what happened with the Zimbardo’s study because as you highlighted in your blog, it clearly follows the six main ethical guidelines so it is hard to grasp exactly why it is still considered ethically wrong. Personally I think that the study was ethical as the ends most definitely justified the means, as it showed the lengths to which we will go to conform to and obey a uniformed role.

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  4. I think they way you have structured your blog with a description of the ethical guidelines followed by an explanation of how the Stanford Prison Experiment relates to these is really effective. I also wrote about this experiment in one of my blogs. In my evaluation I picked up on something that fay said in one of her lecture, that when evaluating experiments such as this and Milgram we shouldn’t necessarily use todays ethical standards to evaluate them. I found that the experiment had been deemed ethical and was fully supported by 3 different departments: The US Office for Naval Research, the US Psychology Department and the University Committee for Human Experimentation and that none of these authorities predicted the shocking results of the experiment. I feel that experiments that happened in the past should not be slated for being unethical when they are compared to todays ethical guidelines because as you say, the results were extremely valuable for the progression of psychological research.

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  7. Great blog! I actually spoke about this in popps, whether the results justify the breach of ethics. And i really believe it does as EVERYONE has heard of this study and everyone uses it in reference to everything ha. For example through this study we found that obedience decreased when it was believed that the researcher wasnt of authority so in advertising ‘apparent’ dentists/experts reccomend products and people seem to comply more as they have more blind trust in authority.

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