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!