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Critically Evaluate The Ethical Precautions Incorporated Into The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted by psychologists Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo in the year of 1973. It was designed to examine the social, clinical and organizational consequences of assigning certain individuals to different status groups over an extended period of time. During this time, a number of experimental manipulations were attempted to promote anonymity, depersonalization, and dehumanization amongst the subjects (Warwick Organizational Behaviour Staff 2001). A mock prison was fabricated in the basement of the psychology department at Standford University where emotionally stable individuals were selected to act as ‘guards’ or ‘prisoners’ in a prison simulation. A distinct margin was formed between the roles of the ‘guard’ and the ‘prisoner’ and the interaction between the groups quickly assumed a negative tone.

Due to “unexpected reactions” (Maxfield & Babbie 2005) which involved “severe emotional disturbance”, and “uncontrollable crying and screaming” (Cohen 2000), the researchers were forced to terminate the study in order to prevent any further damage that might have occurred. Due to the outcome and intense nature of this study, it has obtained an internationally widespread audience. However, a great deal of criticism has been attributed to the ethical procedures that were in place during the study. Although a number of ethical guidelines were integrated within the experiment many guidelines were broken, bestowing a negative representation of the study. Many psychologists are in deliberation regarding the justification for the experiment. Researchers argue between the great amount of knowledge acquired from the findings of the study and the detrimental impact laid upon the subjects involved.

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The first ethical guideline implemented in the study involved a contractual statement where participants agreed to sign a temporary loss of civil rights together with the assurance of “humane conditions”; an adequate diet, clothing, housing and medical care (Adams 2004). However, the prison simulation procedures were more detrimental than expected – subjects received a surprise arrest by city police outside their homes in conjunction with a humiliating prison induction procedure and brutal treatment from the subjects adopting the role of a ‘guard’. Although the participants were given informed consent, the issue of deception was breached when describing the extent to which their human rights would be abused. On the contrary, the level of deception used is substantiated with the justification of the intentions of the study. According to Zimbardo, the deception utilized here was essential in order for the subjects to play their roles without any previous consideration of their position which may have generated biased results in the final data.

Conversely, all participants were given strict confidentiality where all personal details were anonymous. This allowed the subjects to participate without having to disclose information about themselves, some participants did, however, choose to publicize their experience. In addition, the participants were unable to voluntarily withdraw from the investigation. The right to withdraw from a study must be permitted in any experiment and they should be informed of this once the study has commenced. A number of participants in the Standford Prison experiment pleaded to be released, however; Zimbardo ignored these requests until the subject showed signs of physical or emotional harm. This is similar to the guidelines violated by Milgram (1963) in his study of obedience. When the subjects indicated that they wanted to stop, the experimenter compelled them to continue.

The most significant issue involved in the ethical procedures of this study involved the protection of participants. This guideline was extremely violated as the participants did not arrive and depart in similar conditions. In less than two days subsequent to the initiation of the experiment, the subjects became violent and rebellious (Cohen 2000), producing behaviour such as crying, rage, depression and even the development of psychosomatic rash. Participants in this study endured six days of intense, often hostile, interactions that escalated daily in the level of interpersonal aggression of guards against prisoners and five participants were released in this period of time due to signs of acute depression and anxiety (Maxfield & Babbie 2005). As a result of these “unexpected reactions”, the planned two-week experiment was interrupted after six days and discontinued. A significant debate now entails whether the ‘means’ of this study justified the ‘ends’.

Once released from the prison simulation, the ‘guards’ may have been distressed by the sadistic behaviour they may produce once out of the research environment. If the distress resulted in permanent psychological damage, this casts doubt as to whether or not the experiment was ethically justifiable. However, Zimbardo argues that the distress found amongst the participants only lasted as long as the research and there was no permanent damage due to the debriefing procedure carried out at the end of the study. Thorough debriefing sessions took place daily following the end of the study, in which moral conflicts posed by the experiment were discussed (Eysenck 2000). Savin (1973), argued that the mock prison was a “hell”, however, Zimbardo claimed that his debriefing sessions reduced any negative effects on the participants.

Zimbardo (1973) demonstrated that power can cause aggressive and hostile behaviour even when the individual is emotionally stable and most participants reported that they had learned valuable lessons about themselves and the society they live in. The results of this study indicate that situational factors can have a decisive effect on an individual’s behaviour. This research was then used to improve prison systems and procedures with the knowledge of the great importance of the power structure within prisons. Although the study was undeniable of great value, it is not evident that this begins to justify the level of degradation and physical assault that took place during the experiment. Baumrind (1964) and Savin (1973) both argue that Zimbardo’s (1973) research is ethically unjustifiable as the study abused the basic rights of the participant by deceiving them as to the exact nature and purpose of the experiment, and failed to protect them from psychological harm.

In order to make this study ethically justifiable, it is necessary for the participants to be informed of the basic purpose of the study and the extent to which they may be exposed to psychological or physical harm. When various subjects requested to leave the investigation, their requests should have been granted. This breaches participant protection where the subjects were clearly abused. However, the researchers did not anticipate how much and how quickly the participants would accept their roles. Haney (1973) argues that their findings were congruent with those of Lester Milgram (1965) who proposed that “evil acts were not necessarily the deeds of evil men” (Maxfield & Babbie 2005), but could be attributable to the process of powerful social forces.

This demonstrates the dilemma between balancing the right to conduct research against the rights of subjects and whether or not the ‘means’ meets the ‘ends’. Although the Stanford Prison experiment provoked a great deal of commotion about the ethical precautions taken place in the study, a large amount of knowledge was generated that is of great use to the world of today’s society. Participant protection was severely breached upon in this study, however; there was an absence of long-term effects that were detrimental to the subject’s health, which then justifies the ‘means’ to the ‘ends’. It is evident that improvements could have been made regarding the ethical precautions of this experiment, however; on the whole, this study produced a significant impact on society, particularly in prison facilities.


  • Adams, G. (2004) “Unmasking Administrative Evil” in The Social Construction of Compliance: The Stanford Prison Experiment, UK: M.E. Sharpe, pp27-29.
  • Cohen, L. et al. (2000) “Research Methods in Education” in Role Playing, UK: Routledge, pp372.
  • Eysenck, M. (2000) “Psychology: A Students Handbook” UK: Psychology Press, pp569.
  • Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). “Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison” in International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, pp69-97.
  • Maxfield, M and Babbie, E. (2005) “Research Methods for Criminal Justice and Criminology” in The Stanford Prison Experiment, Thomas Wadsworth, pp70-73.
  • Warwick Organizational Behaviour Staff. (2001) “Organizational Studies” in A Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison, UK: Routledge, pp1663-1664.

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Critically Evaluate The Ethical Precautions Incorporated Into The Stanford Prison Experiment. (2021, Apr 13). Retrieved May 11, 2021, from