The Stanford Prison Experiment

This week I have decided to describe and evaluate the methodology used in The Standard Prison Experiment (Zimbardo, 1973) as I think it is a very interesting study that just shows what human beings can be capable of given the situation.

The experiment was a set up of a mock prison in the bottom of the Stanford University. There were 21 middle- class male students that were selected, on the basis that they had good emotional stability, physical health and clean records. 9 were selected to be the prisoners and 12 to be the guards. All randomly assigned. What I found really interesting was the fact that the people that were assigned to be the prisoners were sent home so that they could actually be arrested! That to me sounds a bit more interesting than testing reaction times by pressing a certain key over and over and over again… anyway back to the study. The prisoners were given overalls and numbers, which meant that they would no longer have a name, just a number and they were placed in their cells. The guards were given uniforms and certain rules to go by, for example, they were told to punish the prisoners that were not behaving, but not in a physical manner. Now I won’t go into any more detail about what happened in the experiment because I’m sure every one of us has heard it countless times!

So I will move onto the evaluation. The advantage of this experiment are the results that were obtained. The results showed that the participants quickly adapted to the social roles given so much so that the prisoners became submissive and emotionally unstable and the guards became abusive, sadistic and controlling. This experiment therefore helps support that social influence can have an effect on people’s behaviour meaning that people will conform to a social role given the situation. It can help us to understand why situations like Nazi Germany happened because the guards that were involved said they were following orders therefore they adapted to the social roles.

The disadvantages of this experiment are to do with the validity and ethics. The ethics are covered before any experiment is conducted to make sure the experiment is safe and the people participating will not be caused and physical or psychological harm. This study however failed to protect its participants as one person started complaining about physical pain and suffered from acute emotional disturbance and instead of letting him leave, he was told that ‘they could not leave or quit’. The experiment reached an extreme as more participants started to suffer from psychological problems and the guards had started to become more aggressive that it had to be stopped after 6 days when it was meant to last 2 weeks! The validity of the experiment is another issue. Banuazizi & Mohavedi (1974) believe that because the participant s knew it was an experiment right from the start, the participants were just merely role-playing rather than conforming. The participants could just be exaggerating their behaviour to go along with the experiment. However, Zimbardo pointed out that the guards were trying to hide their more sadistic behaviour from the cameras. Which shows that if the participants were just ‘role-playing’ they wouldn’t bother trying to hide their behaviours. Also Festinger (1980) thought that the research wasn’t scientific because it did not investigate the relationships between the participants but once again Zimbardo pointed out that this experiment clearly showed that social roles can help influence and shape the behaviour of a person.

Overall I think that even though this study can be easily criticised because it didn’t respect the participants’ right to withdraw nor did it succeed in protecting the participants from harm. But without this study I don’t think we would know half as much as we do on the role of social influence and how people will conform to social roles. Therefore, I think that this experiment is not only interesting and intriguing to read about but it is also very significant and important as well!


13 thoughts on “The Stanford Prison Experiment

  1. Yeah really good blog. I agree with everything you are saying so am just going to suggest some further points. You could go on to talk about whether the ends justify the means in research. Does an individuals physical well-being not matter as long as you are gaining great data that helps understanding. It is a very tricky topic to agree on. However I believe it all comes down to the interpretation of situations. While some studies such as Milgrams (1963) can be seen as highly unethical, I believe that the ends did justify the means as afterwards it was shown that 95% of the participants were unaffected by the experiment. However in the case of Zimbardos study, I’m not sure whether or not there is much evidence out there that suggests that the individuals involved in the study came away in the same psychological and physical state. All the time people are being endangered during experiments surely we cannot say that this research is following ethical guidelines. As much as I love the findings of this sort of research and believe that they are important, I cannot see how we can harm others just for the sake of research that may not even prove anything. I look forward to your next blog!

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  3. You make some really good points in your blog but I just wanted to mention that Zimbardo was given APA approval for his Stanford Prison experiment. However things can often look different when presented on paper compared to seeing it happen in front of you. Zimbardo himself did not expect things to go as far as they did but perhaps this shows us that when researchers are right in the middle of things they may not be able to see how far things have gone. You mention how Banuazizi & Mohavedi (1974) stated that participants were only role-playing because they knew it was an experiment. However, Zimbardo argued that if participants were only role-playing then why did they become so affected by the study? He suggested that they may have been role-playing at the start but they did begin to internalise their roles, struggling to tell the difference between real life and the roles they were given*.
    I guess the real question with Zimbardo’s study is: did the ends justify the means? Zimbardo argued that they did but I’m sure many would disagree.

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  5. In your blog you discuss how Banuazizi & Mohavedi (1974) believed that the participants were only role-playing because they knew it was an experiment rather than conforming to a social role. However, Zimbardo has since responded to such criticisms by arguing that those participants acting as guards actively tried to hide their sadistic behaviour from camera footage and, if the guards ‘were playing to a role’ this would not have occurred. The guards were conforming to a social role rather than playing to an audience.

    Zimbardo has also defended the experiment when it was accused of being unethical. Firstly, I would just like to state that approval for Zimbardo’s study was actually granted from the Office of Naval Research, the Psychology Department and the University Committee of Human Experimentation. The Committee, as well as Zimbardo himself, did not anticipate the prisoner’s extreme reactions that followed under the experimental conditions.

    Secondly, Zimbardo has argued that the only element of deception involved in his experiment was linked with the arrest of the prisoners at the very beginning of the experiment. The prisoners were not informed partly as the final approval from the police was not administered until a few minutes before the participants gave consent to participate, and also because the researchers planned for the arrests to come as a surprise and therefore, to be more realistic. However, admittedly, this was a breach of the ethical guidelines of Zimbardo’s own contract that the participants had signed.

    Thirdly, Zimbardo did research and look for alternative methodologies that would result in less distress to the participants but at the same time give the desired information, however nothing suitable was found.

    Additionally, Zimbardo held extensive individual and group debriefing sessions for all participants. Participants returned post-experimental questionnaires several weeks, months and years later.

    It is also extremely important to remember that when Zimbardo realised the severity of how much the prisoners disliked the experience of the experiment, which was unexpected, Zimbardo ordered for the experiment to finish and the experiment was abolished.

    Finally, Zimbardo has repeatedly argued that the benefits and implications of the research such as increased knowledge gained about the understanding of human behaviour and methods of how we can improve society should out weigh the distress felt by some participants caused by the study, this refers to whether the ends justify the means of the experiment.

  6. First of all very good blog and you have shown that you know what you are talking about. I covered a similar experiment this week in my blog; Milgrims obedience experiment. Both of these show what people are capable off in certain situations, and the only way we can find these out is by letting them happen. Obviously in this day and age this isn’t possible due to the codes of ethics that are around. For example in this one even though they are told its an experiment there is people be harmed within it. The ethics codes say that this shouldnt occur and participants should recieve no harm by taking part in the experiment or later on after participating.
    It does show that people act in ways that you wouldnt expect of them when put in the situations. As you mentioned with the guards some of them acted alot different when the cameras were off them. Also some of the prisoners were subject to some pain from the guards which again is completely unethical for experiments.

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  9. I agree with this blog in that it didn’t respect the participants right to withdraw and their protection from harm. They did not inform their participants of what was going on and all of the details. Some may respond to their “superiors” in a more effective manner thus, keeping on going in this experiment longer. Although there could be many variables, I do believe that this research is extremely valuable in many aspects of Psychology and can be a good example of what rich and brilliant research can be discovered when the strict ethical guidelines of experiments are lifted a little and aren’t as strict on the “rules and regulations”. I believe that this data is worth the breaches of ethical guidelines and with more allowance in experiment regulations, we could possibly discover extremely valuable data on any aspect of Psychology

  10. I think this experiment is a really good one and although probably unable to repeat it, well at least to that extent, it has given us a real insight into how people behave and for what reasons. This experiment is demonstrating the effects of power. It is almost as if when people put a uniform on and given an authoritative role quickly adapt to that role despite what they are like out of the uniform. This also appeared to be the same with the prisoners, who knew it was an experiment and they could withdraw, however seemed to forget that it wasn’t a real situation and appeared to go form being psychologically stable to being unstable. I disagree that the experiment didn’t give participants the right to withdraw as all participants knew they could leave at any point and Zimbardo also had to convince someone to leave as they were refusing to even when given the opportunity.

    I think this study is important in that is demonstrates that ordinary everyday people will conform given the right situation, even if they think they wouldn’t. Many experiments have been conducted to show how others can influence the way people behave and how the behaviours of others especially when a majority can have a massive impact in swaying people’s opinions despite knowing what is correct. For example the line study, where despite the participants knowing the right answer would give the wrong answer and conform to what the majority were saying (Asch 1952). Many people conform to group norms in order to feel accepted within the group (Sherif 1936). In relation to this experiment participants may have been conforming to what they thought were stereotypes of their role and would conform to what other also perceived this as in order to feel either part of the guard group of prisoner group.

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  12. What I have found the most interesting thing was that even Zimbardo himself lost sight of his role as a Psychologist and had become absorbed in the role of warden; he permitted the abuse to continue as thought it was a real prison setting. This study got called off because one of the Zimbardo’s graduate student (Christina Maslach) pointed it out to him that he was out of line and should stop the whole study all together.

    I agreed that he did not protected his participants as all of them did not leave the experiment in the same state that they were when they first entered the experiment; they were also emotionally and physically harmed. Which then ethic codes were introduced to make sure similar studies do not take place anymore, and that participants are to be protected to the max. However these results do benefit us in many variety ways in understanding human behaviour.

    Many other unethical studies were carried out even after Zimbardo’s study, as if they haven’t learned from this study, human love to push boundaries. A study called The Mock Psychiatric Ward Experience was carried out for three days by the director of the reseach Jean Orlando (1973). Basically, 29 hospital staff in Illinois were imprisoned to a mental ward of their own, acted as patients. 22 regular staff played their usual roles. The outcome were that the mock patients began act in ways that were indistinguishable from those of real patients, 6 tried to escape, most experienced high level of anxiety, intense, and reported not being treated as a person. The positive outcome of this study was they realised how patients had been treating wrongly in the past, and relationships between patients and staff were improved. Although these studies do come with advantages, but did the ends justify the means? (naaaahhhh)

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