Ethical Implications of the Stanford Prison Experiment
1. The Stanford Prison Experiment was designed in 1971 to test the hypothesis that prisoners and guards are self-selecting; this means that the individuals have certain characteristics that 1) determine the group to which they belong; and, 2) encourage undesirable behavior in the group members. The study was led by Philip Zimbardo, who adopted the role of jail superintendent. The participants were recruited through a newspaper ad and underwent tests to ensure that they were physically and psychologically sound before being admitted to the experiment.
Twenty-four males (who were mostly white and middle class) were finally selected, though only eighteen would be required for the experiment. The remaining participants would be on call.
2. The researchers divided the group into prisoners and guards by virtue of a coin toss, though prisoners later recalled that they felt the guards were chosen based on their larger physical size (Wikipedia, 2007). Next, they decided on the proper prison garb. After converting the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department into a mock jail, it was decided that guards would wear uniforms derived from a military surplus store and prisoners would wear poorly-fitting muslin smocks and rubber sandals.
They would not be permitted to wear underwear, but they would wear a stocking cap to simulate having their heads shaven, and a small chain to reinforce the idea of captivity. Before bringing in the prisoners, the guards received an orientation in which they were told that physical violence was not permitted and that they could run the prison however they wished.
The prisoners were told to wait at home on a particular day and that they would be called on when it was time for the experiment to begin. Unexpectedly, the prisoners were arrested by the actual Palo Alto Police Department, booked and jailed. Once transferred to the mock prison, they were given numbers to replace their names.
Due to the lack of guidelines, the prison environment quickly became chaotic. The guards meted out sadistic punishments and the prisoners accepted it. There was a riot on the second day, which guards volunteered to work overtime, without pay, in order to quash. The prisoners were eventually divided into two groups in order to make them think that there were informers among them, and many of the punishments led to an unsanitary environment. On the fourth day, Zimbardo tried to move the experiment to an actual jail in order to prevent escape, but his efforts were thwarted by the Palo Alto Police Department for insurance reasons. Two patients who appeared early on to be traumatized were replaced. The experiment ended early when 1) a graduate student who had arrived to interview the prisoners objected to the conditions and questioned the morality of the experiment; and, 2) it was discovered that the guards were torturing the prisoners in the middle of the night when they thought no one was watching.
3. There were both expected and unexpected results. Zimbardo concluded that the experiment showed the effects of treating prisoners inhumanely, and how giving individuals too much power can be dangerous. The experiment was intended to be conducted for two weeks, but conditions were such that it had to be shut down after six days. It was expected that the participants would get into their roles, but not to the extent to which it occurred. Even a participant who joined the experiment for subversive reasons found himself deeply invested in his role:
We later learned, while censoring the prisoners’ mail, that he was a self-styled radical activist. He had volunteered in order to “expose” our study, which he mistakenly thought was an establishment tool to find ways to control student radicals. In fact, he had planned to sell the story to an underground newspaper when the experiment was over!
The parents of the “prisoners” were permitted to visit, and the visiting day was conducted as it would be at a real prison, with limitations and a half-hour wait. Surprisingly, the parents went along with the rules with a minimum of complaints. The few parents who were concerned about the prison conditions appealed to the superintendent, Zimbardo, for special treatment, just as the parent of a real prisoner would (Zimbardo, 1999). The most unexpected result was that Zimbardo himself had trouble separating himself from the experiment:
It wasn’t until much later that I realized how far into my prison role I was at that point — that I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist.
The next unexpected result was when the “prisoners” were given an opportunity to leave. A parole board was convened, and participants were given the opportunity to leave as long as they were willing to give up the participation fee. Most agreed and were denied parole. Rather than just quitting the experiment, they went along with the mock “parole hearing”.
4. The experiment is important because it demonstrated how easy it is for prisons to become inhumane, run by guards who treat prisoners like objects rather than people. This was demonstrated by the riots that occurred at real prisons following the experiment. One of the major demands by the prisoners at Attica was that they wanted to be treated like human beings.
5. Psychologists and law enforcement learned that without specific rules, guidelines and limits, it is easy for prison guards to escape into their roles and to treat prisoners inhumanely. Psychologically, the experiment supported cognitive dissonance theory, in which a person’s reality changes to dramatically from what he or she is used to that they have no choice but to accept and embrace the new circumstances. Prisoners were quick to accept the authority of the prison guards and to surrender themselves to the prison environment. Next, the experiment proved that prisoners and guards alike succumbed to the situational attributes of behavior. This means that it was the situation of being imprisoned that caused their behavior, their behavior was not caused by personality quirks. (Newman, et.al., 2002 p. 53) In regard to law enforcement, the experiment taught the researchers how important it is to treat prisoners humanely. The participants who played the part of the prisoners went along with everything that went on. With the exception of the riots, the prisoners accepted the inhumane treatment, and the majority did not attempt to leave. Today, the experiment is used in comparison with the treatment of the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo expected that, as a defense, the guards in charge of the Iraqi prisoners would state that their environment dictated their actions. “Individual behavior is largely under the control of social forces and environmental contingencies rather than ‘personality traits,’ ‘character,’ ‘will power,’ or other empirically unvalidated constructs,” (Saleton, 2004).
6. There were many ethical problems with conducting this experiment. The first concerns the consent form that the participants signed before joining. The consent form mentions a loss of privacy and the limitations involved with trying to leave the experiment early, but it does not say anything about the conditions under which the prisoners eventually found themselves (Zimbardo, 1971). The premise of the experiment anticipated that the prisoners and guards might become too invested in their roles, but the consent form does not state that they might be subject to inhumane conditions.
The next problem was that Zimbardo did not actively direct the experiment. He allowed the guards to run the prison as they wished and did not intervene when it became clear that the prison was out of control. He admitted being more concerned with a potential escape plan than focusing on his experiment.
There were a few prisoners who became ill due to the stressful conditions, and Zimbardo made it difficult for those participants to leave. The participants were primarily white, middle class males who were college undergraduates. They had no experience with prison, losing their freedom, or with any of the conditions that were forced upon them. Zimbardo not only had an ethical responsibility to prepare the participants for all possibilities, but he should have shut down the experiment once he realized that the participants playing the role of the prisoners were quickly having emotional and physical problems.
6. The results can impact every aspect of the legal system, from arrest, to trial to imprisonment. When the subjects were arrested, they were blindfolded and left confused as to what would happen to them (Zimbardo, 1999, slide #3). While this is an exaggeration of how suspects are usually arrested, it is not far off. Often, suspects are made to wait hours in a holding cell before they have any means of contacting the outside world. This leaves them confused and often dehumanized as they are ignored by law enforcement personnel. They were stripped naked and deloused; the delousing is important in order to prevent the spreading of diseases or bugs such as lice, but forcing prisoners to appear naked in front of others is humiliating. Unfortunately, it is common in most prison systems. Next, the prisoners were made to wear uncomfortable clothing and were denied underwear, further dehumanizing them and ensuring that their prison stay would be uncomfortable on the most basic level. Most men are not accustomed to wearing dresses, and real prisoners do not wear them. Common prison garb is functional, but not comfortable. All prisoners look alike, and they are assigned a number. This tells them immediately that they are no longer people, they are numbers. Once ensconced within the prison, the prisoners were constantly harassed by the guards. This is not a stretch from what happens in a real prison.
The Stanford Prison Experiment shed new light on how prisoners should be treated, in light of the fact that prisoners and guards alike quickly fall into their roles and adopt a mentality according to their position. Prisoners have no choice but to put up with the conditions of the prison to which they’re assigned; no one takes their complaints seriously. The results of the experiment, though they are thirty-five years old, should be used to determine proper prison conditions and how prisoners in general should be treated. Dehumanizing prisoners does not benefit anyone; rather, prisoners are more likely to show a willingness to do what they are told if they are treated humanely. The prisoners at Attica had one chief complaint, and that was a request to be treated in a way that was humane.
In conclusion, Zimbardo’s experiment demonstrated that people will adapt to their surroundings quickly and completely. In the prison environment, controls must be in place to prevent the guards from becoming cruel dictators and the prisoners from accepting inhumane conditions without complaint or recourse.
Newman, L. S. & Erber, R. (Eds.). (2002). Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust. New York: Oxford University Press.
(2007 Jan 4). Stanford prison experiment. Retrieved January 9, 2007, from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment
Saletan, W (2004 May 12). Situationist Ethics. Retrieved January 10, 2007, from Slate Web site: http://www.slate.com/id/2100419/
Zimbardo, P (1971). Consent Form. Retrieved January 10, 2007, from The Stanford Prison Experiment Web site: http://www.prisonexp.org/pdf/consent.pdf
Zimbardo, P (1999). Slide Show. Retrieved January 10, 2007, from Stanford prison experiment Web site: http://www.prisonexp.org/slide-21.htm
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