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A social sciences experiment conceptualized and carried out be a Stanford University psychology professor named Philip Zimbardo in August 1971 that was anticipated to last as long as two weeks was instead preemptively terminated after only six days. What is known as the Stanford Prison Experiment had succeeded behind Professor Zimbardo’s wildest imagination, and permanently scarred both him and those whom he had solicited to participate. The parallels drawn in the documentary produced on the subject of Zimbardo’s experiment draws strong parallels with the conduct of U.S. military personnel overseeing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, the abusive treatment of whom became a major scandal for the United States, forever tarring America with the taint of torture.
By recruiting two dozen male college students and having half act as prison guards and the other half as prisoners, Zimbardo, utilizing a makeshift prison in a basement at the university, was able to document the radical transformations that quickly occurred within his test subjects. Those randomly chosen to be guards quickly assumed positions of dominance over those chosen to be prisoners, and that dominance would come to assume disturbing proportions. College students pretending to be prisoners, on the other hand, just as quickly came to resent and defy authority and, ultimately (albeit, in only a matter of days) to suffer actual mental destruction resulting from the confinement and abuse to which they were being subjected – abuse that included solitary confinement in small, dark closets. As the documentary points out, prisoners began to suffer clinical emotional breakdowns from which some would never entirely recover. The guards, simultaneously, became intoxicated with the power they held over the prisoners, and similarly were transformed by the experiment.
By transposing images from the experiment with photographs from Abu Ghraib prison, the filmmakers were able to graphically illustrate the extent to which ordinary people, placed in extraordinary circumstances, would act in way they could never imagine. Under the right circumstances, the two episodes indicate, most of us are capable of levels of cruelty we wouldn’t otherwise recognize in ourselves.
Whether the Stanford Prison Experiment was ethical is, as is usually the case, dependent upon one’s perspective. To the extent that a psychologist is a medical practitioner, for whom the Hippocratic Oath’s tenet against doing harm is sacred, then there is no question the experiment was unethical. It was certainly fascinating, but innocent people were subjected in inhumane treatment and were emotionally scarred for life. Zimbardo couldn’t have necessarily have known this ahead of time, but the results of his experiment remain, and that experiment crossed ethical boundaries.
All parties involved were consenting and aware that they were in a study. From that standpoint, yes it was ethical.
However, the Stanford Prison Experiment should have been stopped when it became aparent that the psycological effects were profoundly harmful. No one knew if the effects would be permanent or how long they would last.
The experiment opened the door for ethical discussions in social experiments.
During my freshman year of college, I took an introductory course in Psychology and the Stanford Prison Experiment was something that we delved into to understand the way the human mind works. Of course it was absolutely fascinating to watch the behaviors of these individuals prior to, during, and after the experiment because there were obvious changes to the participants. Depending on whether or not you were the guard or prisoner, it really affected the way people thought because you associate the guard with words such as authority and power. Whereas, the prisoner was associated with submission and confinement. After the experiment, many of these people were emotionally traumatized because it was taken too far and too seriously without much guidance or restrictions.
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