The Stanford Prison Experiment Ethical Issues

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Lucifer Effect" by Philip Zimbardo. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What was the Stanford Prison Experiment? What were the ethical issues of the experiment?

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo turned the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building into a simulated prison, paying undergraduate male volunteers to act as prisoners and guards. Zimbardo detailed his findings in The Lucifer Effect, which discusses the nature of human evil.

Keep reading to learn more about the ethical issues of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Ethical Issues In Stanford Prison Experiment

Decades later, psychologists still discuss the Stanford Prison Experiment’s ethical issues because of its shocking findings of human nature and the inhumane treatment of its test subjects.

While he planned to run the experiment for two weeks, Zimbardo ended it after just six days because his “prisoners” were suffering far more than he intended, largely due to their guards’ extreme abusive behavior. For example, the guards refused to let the prisoners sleep, constantly harassed them with insults and arbitrary demands, and punished them by making them exercise until they dropped.

The Stanford Prison Experiment Wasn’t Really an Experiment

Various experts have criticized the Stanford Prison Experiment for its lack of scientific rigor ever since it was publicized. The “SPE” isn’t even technically an experiment, as it has no control group or independent variable—Zimbardo admits he intended it more as a “demonstration” than an experiment. Instead of publishing his findings in a peer-reviewed journal, Zimbardo took his project directly to The New York Times for the mainstream media buzz.

This move away from traditional scientific publication channels paid off for Zimbardo: The experiment’s shocking account of abuse gripped the nation, and its notoriety earned the psychologist numerous prestigious paid positions: He made a successful documentary, authored one of the most popular psychology textbooks of the time, and hosted a 1990 documentary series titled Discovering Psychology.

1. Abusive Power Dynamics

Zimbardo states that by forcing the students into the simulated roles of “prisoner” and “guard” during the Stanford Prison Experiment and surrounding them with identity cues that reinforced this power dynamic, he created the circumstances necessary to disengage the guards’ sense of morality. After they had donned identical uniforms and spent enough time in the lifelike prison environment, the role of “guard” overwhelmed the volunteers’ normal personalities.

While they were initially merely pretending to be fearsome and domineering, within days the guards internalized this role, gaining genuine feelings of disgust toward the prisoners and escalating their cruelty far beyond what Zimbardo asked of them. The guards were the most sadistic toward the prisoners when they felt they were not being watched—they would insult and punish the prisoners more on the night shift than during the day and shove prisoners into the urinals during the presumably unobserved toilet runs. This is the opposite of what we would expect if they were just playacting for the cameras.

This situation’s identity cues transformed the prisoners’ personalities, too. After a couple of days of arbitrary punishment for senseless rules, the college-age volunteers became mindlessly obedient to the guards. Their personalities from the outside world disappeared. Rationally, they knew they were volunteers who could quit at any time, but they embraced their roles as reality so deeply that none of them really tried—they accepted their fate as helpless prisoners.

2. Social Pressures Turned to Cruelty

Zimbardo recounts how group pressure influenced the Stanford Prison Experiment guards to be crueler to the prisoners. In every shift, one guard would take the lead in abusing the prisoners, and at least one would imitate him. Quickly, tormenting the prisoners became the norm, and guards who didn’t actively do so stuck out. Many of the guards who initially didn’t want to hurt the prisoners eventually did so to fit in. No guards ever stood up to the group consensus and demanded they tone down the abuse.

The power of authoritative pressure in the Stanford Prison Experiment is best seen in the prisoners. The guards frequently used their authority to get the prisoners to degrade and harm themselves and one another, and for most of the experiment, the prisoners complied. The guards ordered the prisoners to sing songs for them, insult one another, and perform sexual pantomimes on one another. In retrospect, the guards reported being shocked by how readily the prisoners conformed to their extreme commands. They continually expected the prisoners to eventually stand up for themselves and refuse to play along, but they never did.

3. Dehumanization

Zimbardo recounts that the guards of the Stanford Prison Experiment wore identical uniforms, masked themselves with reflective sunglasses, and forced the prisoners to refer to them by title instead of their name, all of which contributed to their anonymity and self-dehumanization, disengaging their sense of morality.

There were several factors at play contributing to the prisoners’ dehumanization as well. The guards only referred to prisoners by the numbers on their jumpsuits and forbade them from using their real names. The guards also prohibited the prisoners from openly or honestly expressing their emotions, causing them to feel (and appear) less human. For these reasons, the guards reported seeing the prisoners like animals and losing their feelings of empathy for them.

The Stanford Prison Experiment Ethical Issues

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Lucifer Effect summary :

  • How ordinary people can turn into heartless killers
  • Insights and criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment
  • Tips on how to resist circumstantial influences

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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