In 1971, Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo lead a group of college students through a social experiment that showed how quickly human nature can spiral out of control. The purpose of the experiment was to study the roles people play in prison. Twenty-four college students were randomly assigned a role of either a prison guard or prisoner to carry out in a mock prison inside the basement of a laboratory. Minimal instructions were given to the college students playing these roles, thus enabling the observer to study the effects of the perceived power of the situation. Mock guards quickly exhibited oppressive and sadistic behavior towards the prisoners and the powerless situation perceived by the prisoners led to trouble distinguishing reality from experiment. The guards used their perceived power to assert authority over prisoners by use of degrading and humiliating tactics. The physical and mental abuse suffered by the prisoners raised serious ethical questions that are still debated today. In 1974, the National Research Act was signed to promote ethical compliance within the medical and social science research fields insuring protection of the individual participating in research, (Research Methods, 67). Dr. Philip Zimbardo admits, ‘his findings came at the expense of human suffering”, (The Lucifer Effect, 181,235).
The Stanford Prison experiment set out to blur the lines between reality and experiment. The purpose was to study human behavior and the power of the situation. Dr. Zimbardo went to great lengths to replicate an environment that gave the perception of power and subordination. Participants were caught off guard when a policeman showed up at their home and performed a mock arrest. Accused of a crime they really didn’t commit, the participants were then taken through realistic booking procedures that included finger printing, strip searches and delousing. To keep the prisoners off guard and confused they were blindfolded when moved to the mock jail. Guards wore realistic uniforms and carried billy clubs, thus reinforcing their dominance over the prisoners.
Prison participants were given humiliating prison uniforms that resembled short dresses, which donned a number that would take the place of their name during the experiment. The rules, roles, symbols and uniforms were all carefully chosen to strengthen the idea of the guard’s power and aid in the prisoner’s loss of self-identity. The experiment quickly escalated out of control resulting in physical and mental abuse of the prisoners. Guards humiliated and exerted power over prisoners by physically breaking them down with grueling exercise and frequent interruptions of sleep. Harassment of prisoners and declining living conditions worsened as the experiment went on. Dr. Zimbardo lost perspective during the experiment and was not able to see the harm being inflicted on his own test subjects. Eventually an outside person raised ethical questions about the experiment, which led to it being shut down after only 6 days.
Ethical considerations such as anonymity and confidentiality of the volunteers were broken the moment the police made public mock arrest; in front of family and neighbors. The handling of test subjects personal identities and information is of highest ethical consideration. Anonymity addresses many potential ethical difficulties in conjunction with confidentiality where the researcher agrees to not publicly link information with a person’s identity, (Research Methods, 62,63). The volunteers signed a consent form that stated, ‘they knew that participating in the research project would involve a loss of privacy”, (SPN, 2018). The loss of privacy clause in the consent form did not elaborate as to how they would lose privacy and could be argued as deceiving the test subjects with vague information. Informed consent requires that the test subject understands the purpose of the research, possible risk and side effects, possible benefits to subjects, and the procedures that will be used, (Research Methods, 71). Exerting oppressive and abusive behavior towards mock prisoners was not one of the risks listed on the consent form presented to the volunteers prior to agreeing to take part in this experiment.
Codes of ethics and institutional review boards are now in place to safeguard and monitor research projects. The American Psychological Association (2010) is very detailed when addressing codes of professional ethics. There are government agencies and nongovernment organizations that act as review boards to assess overall risk to human participants and whether adequate safeguards are in place to protect the welfare and confidentiality of the participants, (Research Methods, 70). The University of Houston Clear Lake has it’s own review board in place to evaluate students research projects before being administered to the public, ensuring the safety of those participating in the study. I’m confident that with the current federal, governmental and local agencies set in place to review ethics and criminal justice research; the ethical violations that took place in the 1971 Stanford experiment won’t be repeated.
The Stanford prison experiment bewilders me. It’s hard to imagine a doctor in charge of students losing perspective and not seeing that test subjects were being physically and mentally harmed. Studies such as this reiterate the need for a checks and balance system within the research community. I do understand that the American Psychology Association conducted an ethics review of the Stanford Prison experiment in 1973 and concluded that the study did not violate ethic rules.
However, it was one year later in 1974 that the National Research Act was signed outlining ethics in research. Dr. Zimbardo’s review was not held to the ethical standards of the 1974 Act or todays
ethical standards, which is why it is so highly debated among college students.
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