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The Stanford Prison Experiment Essay

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One of the most interesting studies made in history was led by Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist and a former classmate of Stanley Milgram (who was famous for his Milgram experiment). He sought to expand on Milgram’s experiment about impacts of situational variables on human behavior by simulating a prison environment, in which volunteering students were randomly assigned as prisoners or prison guards. Many controversies have been elicited from this experiment, and it was with a documentary of the experiment that Martyn Shuttleworth based off his article about the Stanford Prison Experiment.

In 1971, Zimbardo started an experiment that would question the ethic morality of the science-sphere forever. “Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously I was not among that noble class,” Zimbardo later wrote in his book The Lucifer Effect.

Without graduate student Christina Maslach’s voiced objections to the conditions in the simulated prison and the morality of continuing the experiment, there would have been a high probability that conditions would have worsened even more than it already had – the guards would have progressively increased their abusive and aggressive behavior towards the prisoners, whilst the prisoners would have progressively became more passive and depressed.

Five of the prisoners began to experience such severe negative emotions – including crying and acute anxiety – that they had to be released from the study early. What this experiment portrayed was that the situation that a person is put in can strongly impact the way that they behave. For example, Zimbardo himself forgot his identity of a scientist for a moment, and was thinking in the way that a prison ward would think. Only when a fellow scientist questioned the variables of this experiment did Zimbardo realize that he had only considered the potential threat of a riot than the potential experimental findings of this riot.

This reaction in itself is proof that the situation changes a person’s persona. The findings of this experiment shocked America just as Milgram’s experiment did, but even more so because of the actual potential dangers of mental and emotional problems. However, this discovery of human behavior drastically changed the directional flow of many social psychology experiments, and has been the model of many real-world problems such as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses in Iraq. In addition, the validity of this experiment is questionable, because just as Shuttleworth stated, “It was a field experiment, rather than a scientific experiment, so there are only observational results and no scientific evaluation” – what this means is that there were no statistical data to support the results.

There were also many other problems with the experiment such as selection bias (being attracted to an experiment about prison life must have said something about the person), Zimbardo’s duo-role (as the superintendent, he could actively influence the guard’s behaviors, which could affect the experiment), the insufficient sample participants (24 male Stanford undergrad students of about the same age is too small of a basis to generalize the whole population), and much more. In other words, the findings of this experiment are not solid enough to reach a conclusion. In Shuttleworth’s article, the experiment is described in detail based on a documentary of the experiment posted on Youtube. The article summarized the video and the experiment very well, using facts and figures mentioned in the video, such as the $15 pay per day for the participants in a 2 week experiment. However, there is also a question of reliability, and the fact that Philip Zimbardo was present in the documentary makes the source reliable enough in that this source is a primary source, therefore it makes Shuttleworth’s information accurate.

There may be some experimental bias presented by Zimbardo, but all that needs to be understood is that Shuttleworth ‘directly’ obtained the information about this experiment from Zimbardo himself, and therefore the content of his article should be accurate, regardless of its potential bias. However, there was the fact that the article included many additional criticisms that were not mentioned in the documentary. Understandably, the documentary was filmed during the time of the experiment, so there was no hindsight into the later reaction of the populace and the reaction of the experimental subjects to the results of the experiment.

Nevertheless, criticisms imply subjectivity since criticisms involve opinions (which involves bias), and therefore subjectivity makes the article less trustworthy in its portrayal of the experiment due to its opinionated voice. Overall though, this article has provided a very sound structure with the use of a clear, bold heading, and the use of many subheadings that clearly structured the article into a comprehensible piece for a wide range of audiences. Conducted by Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford Prison Experiment has inspired many new ideas in the field of social psychology, and has been the basis of many new studies in psychology.

The findings of this experiment have not been conclusive, but have given us an idea of the potential changes in human behavior when put into an impacting situation. Martyn Shuttleworth’s elaboration of this experiment is very precise and descriptive as well as comprehensive, and his inclusion of criticisms at the end which are not included in the documentary gives the readers an insight to the general reactions of the populace to this remarkable experiment. Zimbardo’s experiment continues to influence the basis of many real-world problems, and will continue to do so as long as human beings retain our complexity.

Bibliography
Stanford Prison Experiment (Documentary). Dir. Hidayahmahaleh. 1973. Documentary.YouTube. YouTube, 12 Mar. 2011. Web. 09 July 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkmQZjZSjk4 Martyn Shuttleworth (2008). Stanford Prison Experiment. Retrieved 08 Jul. 2012 from Experiment Resources: http://www.experiment-resources.com/stanford-prison-experiment.html

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