An Ethical Analysis of the Stanford Prison Experiment The Stanford Prison Experiment, although very fascinating and revealing of human nature, raises ethical questions regarding the methods used by Zimbardo and his research team. Although it is important from a research standpoint to be able to conduct experiments that will provide real, unmolested data, there must be a line that defines when research or an experiment becomes unethical, whether wholly or partially – research should not go on simply for its own sake at the expense of others.
In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the study should have been closed on ethical grounds when the “guards” began to inflict egregious pain and humiliation on the “prisoners”, both physically and psychologically. In other words, once people started being harmed beyond just a few verbal jabs, the experiment became unethical. Zimbardo failed to “notice the subtlest dangers and guard against them”, as Baxter and Babbie (2004) suggest.
It can also be argued that the harm began before the experiment even started- the fact that volunteers were publicly arrested at their real homes could have lasting effects on relationships with neighbors and reputation.
Zimbardo also fell short of the ethical standard when he failed to provide participants a full understanding of the possible risks involved. Granted, Zimbardo asserts he did not know what the affects would be before the experiment began, but once they became evident he still failed to inform them of the extreme risks and request consent – informed consent – again.
Finally, although the study may have been “voluntary”, if the participants had known exactly what they were getting themselves into they likely would not have volunteered, which blurs the line of honesty on the part of Zimbardo and the line of the meaning of “voluntary” on the part of the volunteers. The ethical dilemmas in the Stanford experiment are certainly related to some of the questions raised regarding Stanley Milgram’s study on obedience. The primary similarity lies in the fact that just like Zimbardo, Milgram failed to stop his experiment, even when a participant exhibited signs of extreme psychological stress.
It also raises the same issue of informed consent. However, based on the knowledge we have thanks to some of the results of this experiment, it is difficult to say that these experiments should never have been done; rather, it is a learning experience for the researcher and for future researchers, who now have tools as well as checks and balances in place that can help them conduct studies that have integrity as well as strong ethics. It is easy to say now, nearly 40 years later with all the information we have and current standards of ethics, that I would have declined to do the Stanford experiment.
I likely would have only terminated it based on my own personal comfort level with witnessing emotional stress and physical humiliation. Further, I would probably have fell into my role as the Warden just like Zimbardo did, which would have clouded my judgment regarding when the experiment should have been stopped on ethical grounds. Based on the extreme effects the experiment had on its participants, it would likely be the best choice to not conduct a follow-up study and make volunteers relive their experiences. Baxter, L. A. & Babbie, E. (2004). The Basics of Communication Research. Belmont, CA: Wadworth.
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