Any student who has taken an Introductory Psychology course has read about the Stanford Prison Experiment. Philip Zimbardo, the researcher from Stanford in charge of the study, randomly assigned participants into groups of ‘guards’ (11 participants) or ‘prisoners’ (10 participants), each with corresponding roles and levels of power. Participants were paid for each day in the study. The experiment took place in the Stanford basement, and this became the ‘prison’ environment. Zimbardo’s hypothesis was that the rigid power structure of the prison environment caused prisoners and guards to behave in a hostile manner.
The results of the experiment were astounding (Simply Psychology). The guards’ behavior was extremely cruel and punitive. The prisoners behaved in submissive ways and became extremely dependent on the guards. Several prisoners had complete psychological breakdowns to the point of uncontrollable emotions, and one had to leave the study. The experiment had to be ended early after only 6 days, despite the initial plan to run for 2 weeks, due to the emotional breakdown of several prisoners and the excessive cruelty of the guards.
The findings of the study aligned with Zimbardo’s hypothesis that the prison environment is responsible for causing the behavior of guards and prisoners. Since random assignment was used for the study, the disposition of the guards could not be the explanation for their cruelty, so the environmental differences in power must influence their behavior. He came up with three other theories to further explain his findings. Firstly, deindividuation might explain the behavior of the guards. Their actions could be accounted for by the group. The entire group would share responsibility for cruel behavior rather than one individual, making cruelty the normal response. Secondly, learned helplessness might explain the behavior of the prisoners. The guards’ behavior was unpredictable, so the prisoners gave up trying to fight their decisions. Thirdly, reinforcement could explain the behaviors of the guards and the prisoners. The guards were positively reinforced for their cruelty by affirmation from fellow guards and from aggression reinforcers. The prisoners went through negative reinforcement by receiving less punishment when they submitted to the guards’ orders. This study has been used to explain why ‘normal’ people in positions of power have abused their authority in extreme cases such as in Nazi Germany, or even in a typical prison setting today.
Actually, in recent years, more reports have come out that the study itself was conducted with bias to get the desired results. The guards were coached to behave more aggressively by some of the researchers in charge of the experiment (Vox). The initial reported findings of this study were based on the assumption that the guards behaved in a cruel manner naturally due to their increased power. After these updates, the findings suggest, if anything, that authority figures can persuade individuals to conform. It does decrease the internal validity of the conclusions because the participants may have changed their behavior either due to the experimental conditions or due to the influence of the researchers. The participants were victims of demand characteristics; basically, they may have changed their behavior or responses based on what they thought the study was about to fit the hypothesis of the researchers.
In addition, one of the breakdowns of the prisoners was faked. The prisoner who had an emotional breakdown to the point of being excused from the experiment was simply trying to get out so he could study for his GRE exam (GEN). He signed up for the study thinking he would be able to sit around and read his textbooks, and the date of the exam was immediately after the completion of the experiment. When the guards refused to give him his books, he decided he did not want to be a part of the paid study anymore and tried many methods to leave. His fake breakdown was the one that finally earned him his freedom. He was shocked that he could not leave the study though without faking a serious problem. Several fellow prisoners expressed their dismay at not being able to leave.
Zimbardo continues to defend the experiment. He states that the participants could always leave at any time, and any claims to the contrary are false. He states that the informed consent forms that all participants signed state that any participant who did want to leave the experiment must use the safe phrase “I quit the experiment” (GEN). A participant who used any other variations on this phrase would not be able to leave. However, the consent forms from Zimbardo’s website don’t contain this phrase, so it does appear that he was not truthful with his participants or the media as he continues to defend his actions. In addition to the several problems stated above, attempts to replicate this experiment have not found significant results. The psychological community has to look at repeated studies to see if the results are consistent over time. If the study cannot be replicated, its results cannot be used to explain behavioral phenomena.
Possibly one of the few beneficial things to come out of this experiment is that ethical guidelines have been strengthened for psychological studies. The five ethical principles that the American Psychological Association promotes are beneficence and nonmaleficence, fidelity and responsibility, integrity, justice, and respect for people’s rights and dignity (APA). One of the key ethical principles that the Stanford Prison Experiment violates is respect for people’s rights and dignity. Prisoners who wanted to leave were not allowed to unless they had a severe medical or psychological problem. This violates the right to freedom. In addition, informed consent would fall under this category. The prisoners should have been informed of the safe words they could use to leave in the informed consent they signed. This study also brings up the importance of the principle of beneficence and nonmaleficence. Researchers should assess the potential harm to participants. In this case, many participants in the study were later found to be acting. However, if participants are having psychological breakdowns due to the stressful conditions they are facing, the study is causing them significant harm. The last ethical principle that this study fails is that of integrity; Zimbardo clearly was not honest in his representation of his findings. While this study can still teach us a lot, it teaches us more about the importance of ethical principles in psychological research than anything else.