The Stanford Prison Experiment: Role Influence and Ethical Concerns

Professor Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford prison experiment to explore how individuals are influenced by their roles as either prisoners or guards. The study aimed to examine behavior in "evil" environments and whether people can become "evil" themselves. The findings showed that participants effectively adapted to their assigned roles, with certain guards exhibiting extreme levels of cruelty that bordered on sadism.

Therefore, the prisoners exhibited severe stress leading to feelings of insanity or depression. Twenty-four volunteers without psychological issues, health problems, or criminal backgrounds were chosen to participate.

They were taken to a simulated prison in the basement of the Stanford University psychology building and randomly split into prisoner and guard roles. Each of the three prisoners was assigned a room to reside in 24 hours a day, while guards worked in 8-hour shifts.

The study utilized cameras and microphones and was intended to span 14 days but was stopped after 6 days because of severe unethical behaviors in the prison. The Stanford prison experiment demonstrated how individuals adapt to their surroundings, with guards dominating prisoners who obediently followed commands within just 5 days.

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Zimbardo noted that the prisoners fully embraced their roles and willingly continued participating in the study.

The participants in the study exhibited deindividuation by introducing themselves to the priest with their serial number instead of their real name. Another demonstration of this was when the prison consultant acted as an autocratic head of the parole board, and later regretted his behavior. Overall, the volunteers divided into two groups, leading to in-group favoritism and discrimination against the out-group as predicted by social identity theory.

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The unity among the guards is explained by their shared dislike for the inmates. The concept of the guards as a collective group leads to a sense of anonymity, enabling them to act more freely and aggressively without feeling responsible for their actions, known as deindividuation theory. This lack of accountability may contribute to the violence inflicted on prisoners. The Self-fulfilling prophecy suggests that when individuals are labeled, they tend to fulfill those expectations.

Volunteers were given labels and tried to live up to those expectations, acting in a manner they believed was appropriate. This led to stereotypes being formed about prison guards and prisoners, with volunteers perceiving guards as strong and authoritative. These stereotypes may have been influenced by films or media, causing the volunteers to attribute behavior to disposition rather than situation (FAE).

The theory of cognitive dissonance can be used to understand the behavior of both the prisoners and guards in this scenario. They needed to reconcile their beliefs with their actions to maintain coherence in their self-concept, leading to alterations in their conduct. This study, along with Milgram's shock experiment, illustrates the fundamental attribution error, which places excessive emphasis on personal traits and insufficient emphasis on external circumstances when assigning blame.

Zimbardo's experiment transformed our understanding of psychology within a socio-cultural framework, revealing how seemingly good individuals can exhibit harmful behaviors akin to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. This research has been utilized to analyze phenomena like prison riots and mistreatment of juveniles in correctional facilities, as well as to explore the impact of power-seeking behavior on young adults. The study demonstrated that when deprived of power, the participants underwent unexpected and dramatic changes in their actions.

The participants experienced feelings of depression, helplessness, and instability, showing that their behavior was influenced by the power dynamic. In terms of gender, I believe there would not have been significant differences in the experiment, as both men and women tend to process social perceptions similarly. However, research suggests that violence may have been lower if the experiment was conducted only with females, as testosterone, which is more prevalent in males, is linked to sexual arousal and aggression.

Culture does not have an impact on behavior because everyone desires power, and when it is taken away, instability can occur. Additionally, it can be suggested that the experiment's volunteers were all college students, who may exhibit more aggression due to higher testosterone levels compared to older guards in traditional prisons. These volunteers, mostly white males who were financially stable on average, do not align well with the typical demographics of prisoners who are usually financially unstable.

The experiment was incredibly unethical, causing harm to volunteers both physically and mentally through severe stress and physical torture. Their consent forms lacked important details about the experiment, leaving volunteers unaware of what they were agreeing to and subjecting them to violations such as strip searches and arrest without warning.

Zimbardo assumed the role of superintendent instead of maintaining his role as a psychologist, leading to criticism due to the lack of controls in the experiment. The validity and ethics of the study's methods have been called into question. Ultimately, the experiment shed light on the vulnerability of human behavior in terms of conformity and power dynamics.

Updated: Feb 21, 2024
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The Stanford Prison Experiment: Role Influence and Ethical Concerns. (2016, Sep 08). Retrieved from

The Stanford Prison Experiment: Role Influence and Ethical Concerns essay
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