The Stanford Prison Experiment


The Stanford Prison Experiment

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The Stanford Prison Experiment


Ethics is one of the fundamental pillars of psychology. While the two subjects are distinct, ethics requires morality to be upheld while conducting experimental work. In this perspective, conducting a psychological experiment should consider ethical implications aligned with legal, professional and other facets (Dolly, 2006). However, observing moral codes while doing a psychological research may be challenging as the researcher aim to realize expected results. Such scenario leads to an ethical dilemma in experimental work. This has resulted in review of ethical codes by relevant bodies concerning psychological experiments. This paper examines ethical issues in the Stanford prison experiment as a psychological research; establish an in-depth understanding before drawing a conclusion.

A Brief Description of Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford prison experiment is one the most influential studies in the field of psychology. The test was conducted in 1971 from 14th to 20th August at Stanford University (Gerrig, Zimbardo & Campbel, 2011). The research was led by Philip Zimbardo, who was a psychology professor at the University. The experiment involved 24 undergraduate students who were selected from a broad cross-section of 70 volunteers. The participants were to take the role of either prisoners or guards in a mock prison that was set in the basement of the psychology building at the University. The primary aim of the experiment was to test the hypothesis that situational variables influences human behavior and causes the prevalence of abusive acts in the prison environment. Zimbardo and his research team wanted to know the response of the ‘prisoners’ after being held in a simulated prison surrounding (Rtnesar, 2011). To enhance the accuracy of the results, the research team ensured that all the participants had no criminal records, and were free from psychological issues and mental illness.

However, the experiment that was projected to take two weeks was terminated earlier than expected. The experiment was prematurely terminated on the sixth day after the guards became cruel to the prisoners causing severe distress to them. The interaction between the guards and prisoners became more hostile and dehumanizing. At the end of the experiment, it became apparent that individual behaviors are highly influenced by the situation rather than the personalities (Zimbardo, 2006). For instance, the guards acted with authority as they were placed in a commanding position while the prisoners were placed in a situation that portrayed the loss of control thus making them inferior, passive and distressed. As a superintendent of Stanford Prison, Zimbardo was also absorbed by the job as he admitted to overlooking abusive behaviors by the jail guards till Christina Maslach questioned the morality of the experiment (Zimbardo, 2006). The Stanford prison experiment is a proof of how the situation can influence an individual to change their character without their awareness. The experiment explains why prison environment is always characterized by abusive and dehumanizing behaviors.

Ethical Concerns Arising from Stanford Prison Experiment

The ethicality of Stanford Prison experiment has been questioned by many psychology scholars. Based on the current codes of ethics in the psychology field, the test appears to have a very low score regarding fulfilling the rules, conditions, and criteria. Firstly, the ethical codes of conduct require an experiment to adhere to the principle of beneficence. In this context, the researcher should minimize the possible harms while maximizing the benefits. The Stanford research violated the principle of beneficence at a greater magnitude. Zimbardo experiment participants suffered a considerable anguish while the research team was aware of the situation. For instance, five of the participants in the experiments had to be released early due to the harsh prison environment and cruel behaviors perpetrated by the guards (Zimbardo, 2011). The violation of the principle of beneficence was exhibited by numerous incidences that involved humiliation and dehumanizing of prisoners.

The Stanford prison experiment also violated the principle of rights which a fundamental concept in ethicality. The principle of rights stipulates that participants in any research study have a right to leave at their free will at any stage of the experiment. Zimbardo violated the freedom of the members which is against this principle. For instance, the research team allowed the operation to continue despite the willingness of the participants to leave the mock prison. The ethical codes also require the researcher to adhere to the principle of respect for persons. In this regards, the participants of a study should be treated as autonomous agents and ensure that individuals with diminished autonomy are protected. For instance, Zimbardo became absorbed into his role as superintendent of Stanford Prison and allowed the guards to continue with their harsh and unethical conducts. However, the participants in this experiment were randomly selected, and the roles assigned were for research purpose only (Ratnesar, 2011). From this perspective, Zimbardo acted unethically for failing to protect ‘prisoners’ from cruel acts of the guards.

The principle of respect for persons was highly infringed. The Zimbardo experiment also violated the principle of justice. Thus, the policy calls for a fair distribution of benefits and risks of a particular research. The adverse impacts of the Stanford Prison environment were apparent on the second day of the experiment. However, it took Zimbardo five extra days to terminate the operation. He only considered the decision after a third party questioned the morality of the experiment. In this context, there was an unfair distribution of benefits and risks arising from Zimbardo experiment. More priority was given to potential scientific benefits compared to the resulting psychological harm. A partial replication of Zimbardo experiment is observed in a BBC prison study undertaken in 2002 by Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam (Zimbardo, 2011). However, the results and conclusion of this study differed with Stanford experiment regarding the role of leadership and stress. The difference in results was highly attributed to lack of generalizability in Zimbardo experiment.

Personal Analysis

Personally, I believe the Stanford prison experiment should have conducted as it happened regardless of several ethical issues raised by the research. The study revealed the extent to which situational variables can influence human behavior. It is notable that not all scholars in social science believe that Stanford experiment achieved valid results. For instance, the authors in the BBC prison study argued that Zimbardo experiments lacked consistency as the guards were only acting according to the instructions. However, the participants in the Stanford experiment were randomly assigned roles and neither prisoners, nor the guard had legally earned their positions. Moreover, the participants were scrutinized to ensure that none of them had past criminal records (Gerrig et al., 2006). The validity of the results can be further be ascertained by the fact that even Zimbardo was also absorbed by the situation despite him being aware it was just an experiment. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that Stanford experiment was a worthy research.

In my viewpoint, the Zimbardo experiment required an essence of a real prison to realize expected results. However, the research team should have altered some issues to ensure that the analysis upholds ethics. For example, the participants who were negatively affected by the prison environment should have been granted free will to leave the prison. This adheres to the principle of right as stipulated by the ethical codes of conduct (Dolly, 2006). Zimbardo also had a duty to ensure that the autonomy of the participant is respected by the guards. This would have protected the guards from unnecessary stress and anxiety. In my right frame of mind, I will only participate in such an experiment either as a research participant only if I am treated with dignity and I have a free will to leave. In the modern society, Zimbardo’ experiments set up and results would have been altered to ensure that it reflects gender balance and to observe established codes of ethics.


The above discussion reveals that ethics is a fundamental pillar in psychology. Psychological experiments need to adhere to the established codes of ethical conduct in order to uphold morality and human dignity. The paper shows that the Stanford prison experiment violated key principles of ethics. These include the principle of right, justice, respect, and beneficence. Despite criticism from several social scientists concerning validity and generalizability of Zimbardo results, the experiment clearly proved that situational variable has an upper hand in individual behavior. This proves that Zimbardo’s experiment was a worthy research. However, future experiments need to incorporate codes of ethics and gender balance to enhance generalizability and validity of results and conclusion.



Dolly, J. R. (2006). Research ethics and philosophy (chapter 3). Retrieved November 18, 2015, from

Gerrig, R., Zimbardo, P., & Campbell, A. (2011). Psychology and life. New York: Pearson Higher Education AU.

Zimbardo, P. (2011). The Lucifer effect: How good people turn evil. New York: Ebury Publishing.

Ratnesar, R. (2011). The menace within. Stanford Alumni. Retrieved from

Zimbardo, P.G. (2006). Or rethinking the psychology of tyranny: the BBC prison study. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45(1), 47-53.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment: A lesson in the power of the situation. The Chronicle of Higher Education 53(30).


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