Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Stanford Prison Experiment. Ethical or not?

One of the most interesting and though provoking experiments that I have had the opportunity to explore while being a student at Illinois State University was The Stanford Prison Experiment.   This 1971 experiment was conducted through Stanford University by professor Philip Zimbardo.  The experiment set forth to study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. A short slideshow documentary can be found here
Twenty-four male students were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and prison guards in a mock prison located in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.  To Zimbardo's suprise, the participants took to their roles entirely serious, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological and physical torture.

To the surprise of many, the prisoners accepted the physical and psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. Even more surprising, the experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners quit the experiment early and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days. Certain portions of the experiment were filmed and excerpts of footage are publicly available.
In my opinion and what I would like to discuss is my belief that The Stanford Prison Experiment was unethical.  The fact is that this experiment could not be legally replicated today, due to the fact that it would not meet many ethical codes, including the ethics code of the American Psychological Association.  While this experiment may have been viewed to be ethical in 1971, I don't believe it would pass the Stanford IRB today. 
If you were to take a look at the study from an ethical perspective, the 5 main ethical categories were all shattered.  These 5 ethical categories include:  risk/benefit ratio, harm, voluntary participation, deception, and confidentiality.  In my opinion, Zimbardo himself clearly violated these ethical rules in this experiment. 
Although the risk/benefit ratio may be somewhat subjective, I feel that the risk in this experiment(physical and emotional abuse), was not worth the benefit that Zimbardo would get out of this research (especially because it was ended early).  This research experiment is much different than medical research in that the risk benefit ratio is usually acceptable due to the potential of human lives being saved and cures to debilitating diseases being discovered.  The  outcome of Zimbardo's experiment does not have this type of benefit in order to justify the risks involved.
It is clear, in my opinion that the research subjects were harmed in the process of this experiment.  In the later stages of the experiment, a prisoner even developed a psychosomatic rash on his body when he had learned that his parole had been denied.  At this point, Zimbardo crossed the line into physical abuse to his research subjects. 
Additionally, prisoner #8612 began suffering from acute emotional disturbances, disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying and rage.  This subject should have been dismissed from the project immediately, but was instead bribed to continue his participation in the experiment.  Similarly, inmate #819 had stated that he wanted to see a doctor, rather than the priest and was denied access to a doctor, which in my opinion is unethical and immoral.  He began to cry hysterically and was clearly disturbed.  He was instead sent to a different room.  In my opinion, he should have been dismissed from this project at this time.  Inmates immediately began chanting and verbally abusing the inmate.  Prisoner #819 continued to cry but was then comforted by Zimbardo, who finally dismissed him from the experiment, clearly many hours too late. 
Zimbardo clearly harmed the subjects of his experiment both physically and emotionally.  I don't feel Zimbardo kept an eye on the prison guards like he should have.  He had an inclination that the guards were starting to abuse prisoners and should have supervised their behavior better.  It wasn't until later that he viewed videotapes of the guards who were abusing the prisoners during evening hours, when nobody was around to witness the abuse.  I would be fairly certain that there were lasting, harmful effects left on the subjects of this experiment.   He is ultimately responsible for the safety of all of his subjects and he clearly dropped the ball.  The long-term effects of this experiment will have detrimental on the research subjects for many years.
For Zimbardo himself to bribe prisoner #8612 was unethical in my opinion and was clearly a break of voluntary participation.  I got the impression that many of the prisoner subjects were urged to continue against their will.  The use of better meals and more freedom was a clear attempt to keep the research subjects participation, even though they wanted out.
Deception is an acceptable activity in many research experiments, but I feel the deception practiced in this experiment was much more harmful.  Parents of the subjects were lied to in a effort to make them think that their child was not being physically or emotionally abused.  The parents of these subjects had not agreed to any part of the experiment and I believe the deception of the parents crossed the line.  In some instances, parents were even "guilted" into having their child continue in the experiment by the researcher. 
Additionally, I thought the Catholic priest that came to the "prison" mislead and lied to the inmates and families.  This form of deception rides the line in my opinion.  I believe there is a form of implied confidentiality with a priest.  I view this similarly as an attorney/client, or doctor/patient privilege.  I do think the priest acted unethically in his misrepresentation to the inmates.  The priest did contact the parents, who contacted an attorney to go talk to their kids who were in the prison, but did very little to comfort the prisoners.   It was stated that the priest accepted the role in the experiment to deceive the prisoners.
I am unaware of any confidentiality issues with this experiment, due to the fact it was not mentioned in my materials.  If there were an issue in violation of confidentiality, it would be the open arrests in the research subjects neighborhoods.  Neighbors, friends and family were all witness to an experiment, not a legitimate arrest.  This is certainly a questionable action.
I don't feel the insight gained into the conditions experienced to prisoners and guards was worth the process for several different reason.  In my opinion, the irreversible physical and emotional harm caused to the prisoners could be long lasting and have detrimental effects on their lives or the lives of others.  Post traumatic stress disorder is a very debilitating disorder.  At best, Zimbardo was able to gain some insight on our understanding of how certain situations can influence human behavior. I don't view this finding to be surprising at all.  We just need to look at history to find the very outcome of what Zimbardo was trying to prove.  Situations like this took place in Nazi Germany and Abu Ghraib.  Similarly, I believe police brutality is an example of "power hungry" people in an authority position.  These instances have gone on for hundreds of years and will continue.  I believe these were the findings that Zimbardo was hoping for, but should have already known. 

I believe that Zimbardo became much too involved in this study.  The first example of this happened when the prison guards heard the rumor of a possible prison break and escape attempt.  Zimbardo immediately asked the Palo Alto Police Department for the use of their jail during the anticipated time of the prisoner riot.  Obviously , the Palo Alto Police Department had much higher priorities that helping with a mock prison research experiment.  This rejection angered the Zimbardo, because the riot had the possibility of ending his project.  The day of the alleged prison break was so intense to the researcher that no data was collected.  In my opinion, this just solidifies the fact that he had lost control of his experiment.
Not long after the rumored prison riot, a friend/colleague had questioned Zimbardo on the experiment, which angered him.  The colleague had asked a very legitimate question in regards to the independent variable of the study.  One of the reasons he became so upset with his colleague was that he was questioning him at a stressful time(the alleged prison break) in the experiment, which he believed was going to happen.  Zimbardo himself stated that at this point he had taken on the role of a prison superintendent, rather than a research psychologist.  This is a prime example of him losing his sight on the goal of the experiment.

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