Ethics, in any kind of research, is very important and needs to be considered in all aspects of the research. For my blog post this week I will be discussing a research study conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo in which the the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard were examined. An ad was placed in a local newspaper asking for volunteers to study the psychological effects of prison life in which there were over 70 applicants. Out of these 70 only 24 college students from the U.S. and Canada in the Stanford area were selected to participate. All of these students were an average group of healthy, intelligent, middle-class males. The participants were randomly divided into two groups. Half of them were assigned the role of guards while the other half were assigned the role of prisoners.
A prison like environment was constructed in the basement of Stanford’s Psychology Department. All of the events that occurred in this experiment were videotaped through a small opening. The prison contained a very dark and tiny solitary confinement area where “bad” prisoners would go as well as in intercom system that could be used to make announcements to prisoners and listen to their conversations. There were no windows or clocks in the building so the prisoners had no way of telling what time of day it was.
The volunteers that were assigned the role of prisoners were swept up in a mass arrest simulation during which they were formally booked, given Miranda rights, finger printed, blindfolded, and taken to a holding cell. The prisoners were later transported to the “Stanford County Jail” for more processing. They were individually brought to the jail and explained how serious their offense was as well as their new status as prisoners by the warden. Next, they were strip searched and deloused. In addition, they were given uniforms that resembled dresses (and were not allowed to wear anything under), rubber sandals, women’s nylon stockings to put over their hair, and chains on their right ankle to be worn at all times. This was all meant to humiliate the prisoners and emasculate them. The chains provided an atmosphere of oppression and served as a reminder to them that they could not escape (Zimbardo, 1999-2017).
The guards in this experiment were given no instructions on how to act as guards and were free to do basically whatever they felt was necessary to maintain law and order. They all dressed in khaki uniforms and had a whistle and billy club with them as well as sunglasses that prevented anyone from seeing their eyes/reading their emotions. The guards asserted their authority through a series of blasting whistles that occurred each night. The first time this happened the prisoners were not used to their roles and did not take this seriously which lead to confrontations between the prisoners and guards. Guards used push-ups as one form of punishment and sometimes stepped on their backs or commanded other prisoners to sit on them while they did push-ups. This form of punishment was also used in Nazi concentration camps (Zimbardo, 1999-2017).
On the second day of this experiment, the prisoners rebelled. They barricaded themselves inside their cells and began to taunt and curse the guards. The guards were very angered by this and called for reinforcements. the proceeded to break into the cells using fire extinguishers, stripped the prisoners naked, and put the leaders of the rebellion into solitary confinement. After this the guards had no problem harassing and intimidating the prisoners. The guards began to use psychological tactics on the prisoners to turn them against each other. Gradually the experiment became a reality for the participants and the guards believed that the prisoners may actually cause them harm leading them to become more controlling and aggressive (Zimbardo, 1999-2017). Every detail of the prisoners lives were controlled by the guards. Several prisoners suffered extreme mental breakdowns and their reality was further blurred by visits from a priest and lawyer. Some had to be released early.
This experiment was meant to last two weeks but it only made it six days. The study was ended early due to the escalated abuse of prisoners during the nighttime where the guards believed no researchers were watching. Their boredom led them to do very disturbing and degrading things to the prisoners. I found it very intriguing how regular people could turn into completely terrible people by simply being given a role and put into that environment. I think it is very important to always keep in mind that you are researching human beings. Some of the trauma endured by those prisoners continued to affect their lives even after the study was ended. The study should have been ended the moment that signs of abuse were shown. The lives of the people being studied should be valued over what the research will tell you.
Zimbardo, P. G. (1999-2017). The Story: An Overview of the Experiment. Retrieved from (April 9, 2017) Social Psychology Network: http://www.prisonexp.org/the-story