Ethics in Psychology: Stanford Prison Experiment

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Introduction: Explanation of Experiment

The selected experiment for this analysis is the simulated prison experiment of 1971 by Philip Zimbardo, famously known as the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). This professor recruited a number of male citizens from the community to be part of the intended psychological and behavioral study (Favaretto et al., 2020). The aim was to analyze the impacts of situational attributes on the reactions and behaviors of the participants. This investigation was conducted during the summer of the year 1971 at Stanford University (Griggs & Bartels, 2019). The professionals involved replicated a prison setting and exposed the participants to similar conditions. The professional in charge of the experiment selected volunteers based on their psychological attributes and strengths. The research activity involving human subjects remained questionable due to the kind of torture most participants had to endure. Consequently, the researchers had to abandon the experiment before the end of the intended period. However, some of the subjective conclusions revealed that the simulated environment triggered the exhibited behaviors in accordance with the Hawthorne effect and the cognitive dissonance theory (Ilfeld, 2017). Based on these issues, this experiment has remained one of the most widely discussed and analyzed unethical research in the world today.


The researcher involved in the SPE committed several ethical violations that form the basis for many case studies in the areas of bioethics and human research. The first one is that the nature of the promoted study failed to avoid harming the participants by all means possible. By identifying such individuals and subjecting them to the predetermined prison environment, Zimbardo had ignored the principle of minimizing any foreseeable harm and ensuring that all participants remained supported and empowered (American Psychological Association, 2017). This ethical principle is outlined in section 3.04a of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (American Psychological Association, 2017). During the pre-planning phase for this study, Zimbardo and his team failed to consider some of the possible issues that could have emerged during and even after the study. The inclusion of individuals who received payments amounting to 15 US dollars meant that they would have lower chances of adhering to the outlined ethical guidelines (Ilfeld, 2017). Basically, the researcher ignored the provisions of this principle, thereby setting the stage for implementing better policies to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

The second code applicable to the SPE is found in section 3.04b. Under this code, it is evident that psychologists should avoid engaging in activities or decisions that could assist or support torture (American Psychological Association, 2017). During the research study, Zimbardo and his team failed to put in place proper mechanisms for mitigating any form of harm against every participant. The intentional infliction of pain by some of the participants who assumed the role of guards shows conclusively that the investigators failed to promote this principle. The end result was that the experiment had to be aborted since the pursued activities amounted to degrading behavior and cruelty. To undertake a psychological study in an ethical manner, it is always necessary that professionals consider the best strategies to prevent mental, physical, and emotional harm.


Since the early 1970s, Zimbardo has remained a famous professor after the move to complete the SPE study. His personal background appears to have set the stage for this specific research investigation that remains a powerful case study for analyzing the applicability of ethical principles. He was born and raised up in a family of immigrants from Italy. As a child, he experienced a wide range of barriers, discrimination, and prejudice (Zimbardo, 2008). The poor family had to depend on welfare support for survival. In some instances, he could be labeled as Jewish or Puerto Rican, a trend that increased his exposure to negative experiences.

Throughout her early years, Zimbardo remained keen to analyze the nature of human behaviors and how they interacted with their counterparts under some conditions. His curiosity continued to increase until the time he had recorded meaningful gains as an academician. In school, most of his works and research revolved around people’s behaviors and responses to strenuous environments (Zimbardo, 2008). His career roles in different universities encouraged him to pursue his dreams and eventually get a proper understanding of the nature of human behaviors. He would later apply for a government grant that allowed him to conduct the SPE study.

Based on these observations, it would be agreeable that cases of discrimination and prejudice could be troubling. Zimbardo’s encountered numerous challenges throughout his early childhood. While in school, he should have gone through similar barriers that had the potential to affect his personal and career dreams (Maslach, 2000). The eventual success in his life could be identified as a response to most of the predicaments. He would also rely on his new position as a professor to pursue unique research that would help him settle the distributing issue once and for all. These issues and life experiences were, therefore, influenced towards reshaping Zimbardo’s experimental goals in the wider field of psychology.

Personal Position

The issues surrounding the SPE form the best case study for examining the role of ethics in psychology. Having studied the emerging concerns and the approaches Zimbardo adopted for his study, it becomes clear that he committed numerous violations. For instance, the professor failed to consider the possible implications of the study and how some of the participants assuming the roles of guards went ahead to misuse their positions (Favaretto et al., 2020). During the planning phase, the researcher could have conceptualized and predicted that some of the participants could abuse their colleagues. The choice of a prison setting was also inappropriate since it set the stage for increased ethical violations.

Throughout the process, the investigator ignored the major concerns associated with different American prisons. For instance, cases of prejudice, abuse, and injuries were usually the norm in most of these facilities (Favaretto et al., 2020). The choice of the study would set the stage for similar occurrences. This assertion is convincing and capable of explaining why the intention and pursuit of the experiment could be studied as unethical.

Additionally, section 3.04b of the established code of ethics is intended to prevent any form of harm. The completed SPE project fell short of this key principle. The nature of the prison setting and the absence of proper guidelines to ensure that the participants remained ethical affected the intended outcomes. The investigator also ignored the nature of this possible challenge by not providing the most appropriate control mechanisms (Ilfeld, 2017). Consequently, the guards took the opportunity to engage in detestable actions that affected the overall experiences and well-being of the other participants. The emergence of these questionable issues would eventually compel Zimbardo and his team to abandon the entire project.

These insights present strong arguments for guiding and encouraging researchers to take the issue of ethics seriously. The involvement of human subjects in psychological investigations presents a dilemma for both the researcher and the participant. The nature of such issues explains why there is always a need for institutions and agencies to implement effective principles and codes to guide any form of research. Zimbardo’s experiment has, therefore, remained questionable for failing to meet the threshold for truly ethical research (Griggs & Bartels, 2019). These evidence are capable of informing future discourses on this subject while introducing sustainable safeguards to protect individuals who volunteer to be involved in similar studies.

Conclusions and Implications

Most of the completed studies have tried to identify the ethical challenges of the SPE from the lens of the final outcomes of the investigation. Unfortunately, this approach has remained questionable since the professor ignored the methods of pursuing studies before even attempting the actual experiment. The notable conclusion from such analyses is that future scholars should apply ethical principles during the initial phases of their studies. This strategy would make it easier for them to predict some of the possible issues and violations. The rationale behind this thinking is that ethical principles must be applied in every stage of the experimentation, including topic identification and analysis of the intended research methods. Such an evidence-based approach has the potential to prevent the emergence of ethical questions once the study has been launched.


American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. APA.

Favaretto, M., De Clercq, E., Gaab. J., & Elger, B. S. (2020). First do no harm: An exploration of researchers’ ethics of conduct in Big Data behavioral studies. PLoS ONE, 15(11), e0241865. Web.

Griggs, R. A., & Bartels, J. M. (2019). Teaching scientific thinking using recent archival revelations about the Stanford Prison Experiment. Psychology Teaching Review, 25(2), 39-47. Web.

Ilfeld, F. (2017). Group dynamics and the new heroism: The ethical alternative to the Stanford prison experiment. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 68(1), 124-131. Web.

Maslach, C. (2000). Emperor of the edge. Dreamspeak.

Zimbardo, P. (2008). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. Random House.

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PsychologyWriting. "Ethics in Psychology: Stanford Prison Experiment." March 9, 2023.