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Research Ethics Stanford Prison Experiment Summary Essay

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The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) was conducted in 1971 at Stanford University in the basement of the psychology building. Philip Zimbardo as lead researcher headed the research team to study the impact of situational variables on human behaviour. Zimbardo and his team advertised for volunteers to a social experiment offering $15 in payment per day. Wanting to examine the “dark side” of human nature, applicants were required to have no criminal record, no psychological issues and no major medical conditions.

Each of the 70 applicants were psychologically tested and the 24 most “normal” were selected to take part in the SPE.

The 24 selected participants were then divided into two groups randomly, with one half being prisoners and the other half being guards. The guards were taken to the mock prison before the prisoners arrived to help in the final stages of the prison’s construction and to help select their military style uniforms, this was to give the guards a sense of ownership over the prison environment.

Alternatively the prisoners were surprised with real police and authentic processing before being incarcerated into the prison. Despite it being an artificially created environment the guards and prisoners quickly altered their behaviour in response to the situational variables of the experiment. Prisoners were dehumanized and their individuality stripped away, while the guards became increasingly more sadistic and degrading towards the prisoners. After the guards crushed an early attempted rebellion by the prisoners, one prisoner was released for acting irrationally to a point that seemed pathological.

After this some of the prisoners became super-conformist, following rules to the letter. While other prisoners began to act crazy in an effort to passively escape like the first released prisoner. The guards fell into three categories with some acting sadistically and degrading towards the prisoners, others going completely by the book and some guards acting kindly and doing small favours for the prisoners. None of guards ever intervened or questioned the actions of other guards however no matter what kind of guard they were.

The experiment was terminated early after just six days when an outsider, a recent PhD graduate came in from the outside and saw how out of control the experiment had become. Ethical issues that arose during the SPE were the harm done to the participants. Guards were allowed to inflict real pain and humiliation on the prisoners over an extended period of time. The experiment was allowed to continue for longer than it should have because the participants and observers fell too deeply into their roles. There was also little or no regard for the participants’ confidentiality during the SPE.

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