Nowadays, modern psychologists are expected to adhere to a strict and rigid code of ethical principles in order to ensure the validity of their practices and the safety of the patients and participants. Any psychological experiments that are to be conducted are forced to undergo an extensive review by a competent board of experts and receive their approval prior to proceeding. However, it was not always the case.
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The formal acknowledgment of these ethical guidelines by the American Psychological Association happened only after the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Professor Philip Zimbardo (“Ethical Guidelines for Human Research” par. 12). Despite the fact that the experiment provided interesting results and the data accumulated during the research was later used as a basis for improvement of prison conditions, it still violated several ethical guidelines and put the physical and mental health of the participants at unnecessary risk. The purpose of this paper is to explore the moral qualms of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
Professor Philip Zimbardo, when conducting his study, wanted to find out how readily the participants would adapt and conform to the roles of a prisoner and a guard during a roleplay exercise. The investigation was sparked by numerous reports of the brutality of the guards in prisons. This experiment was supposed to give an answer as to whether this tendency had something to do with the personalities of the guards or the environment that they found themselves in.
For this experiment, 24 participants were chosen out of 75 volunteers. The students were split in half. One group had to play the prisoners and another – the guards. The setting emphasized realism – the fake prison looked very real, and the professor even arranged an unexpected arrest of the participants in their homes by the local police department. The prisoners were told to refer to one another only by their numbers. The guards wore dark shades to avoid any direct eye contact with the prisoners. No explicit rules about prisoner conduct were given, aside from the fact that no violence was allowed. The guards were instructed to maintain order through any means necessary (Danko 1).
Although the experiment was meant to last for two weeks, it was terminated after six days. The research became famous due to the unexpected brutality that the mock guards showed towards the prisoners. All participants were tested prior to the experiment and showed no inclination towards sadistic behavior. During these six days, the guards treated the prisoners with increasing neglect, contempt, and abuse. There was one case of a prison riot when the participants barricaded themselves in their cells.
One prisoner had to be released from the experiment due to experiencing a psychological breakdown. The experiment concluded that the brutal behavior of the guards was a situational behavior and not a dispositional one (McLeod 1).
The study has received numerous criticisms concerning professional ethics. The major points of all ethical complaints include a lack of fully informed consent and endangering the participants’ mental health (“Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct” par. 4). The participants were unable to give fully informed consent since the professor himself was unable to predict the results of the experiment. The episode with the fake arrests was a last-minute addition that none of the participants consented to. Not only was this incident a breach of ethics, but it was also a violation of the contract Zimbardo signed with the participants (Zimbardo 1).
A much more pressing concern, however, was endangering the participants’ mental health. The students involved in the experiment were exposed to a great amount of stress, humiliation, and psychological harm. One of the prisoners suffered a mental breakdown and had to be released from his cell prematurely. He succumbed to uncontrolled bursts of screaming, crying and laughter (“The First Prisoner Released” par. 8). Although no permanent long-term effects were noticed for any of the subjects, it was still a case of dangerous misconduct. The experiment breached the general principles of psychological ethics, such as the principle Benevolence and Nonmaleficence and the Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity (“Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct” par. 3).
Professor Zimbardo was fortunate that the experiment he conducted did not cause any lasting or permanent damage to the participants. As the incident with the breakdown of one of the students had shown, the possibilities for psychological trauma were plenty. The experiment should have been stopped after that incident. Instead, it continued for three more days and was terminated only after the interference of Christina Maslach (McLeod 1), who was brought in to conduct interviews with the guards and the prisoners.
The history of unsavory experiments shows that the experiments, which have little regard for morals and ethics, tend to lend better results. However, there is a danger in such a way of thinking. Modern psychology is dedicated to helping people and studying human behavior. These goals could be achieved without endangering those who agreed to aid the scientists in their noble goals. It should stay that way. Perhaps these measures would restrain the speed of progress. However, it is better this way. The scientific community should take care not to undermine the trust the people are putting into them. The public outrage caused by the Stanford Experiment shows how fragile that trust could be.
Danko, Meredith. 10 Famous Psychological Experiments That Could Never Happen Today. Web.
Ethical Guidelines for Human Research, 2016. Web.
Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, 2010. Web.
McLeod, Saul. Stanford Prison Experiment. Web.
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The First Prisoner Released, 2016. Web.
Zimbardo, Philip. Consent Form. Web.