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The Ethics of the Standford Prison Experiment

This class discusses one of the most famous psychological experiments of all time, conducted by Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues at Stanford University. To read more of the details of this experiment, visit the site, After reading about this study, answer the following questions:

a. Was it ethical to do this study?

b. According to follow-up interviews, the experimenters did not take this issue lightly. Was it right to trade the suffering experienced by participants for the knowledge gained by the research?

c. What does this experiment tell us about some of the conformity, obedience, compliance and some of the other concepts in social psychology?

Solution Preview

a. Was it ethical to do this study?

Each person might answer the question differently of whether or not it was ethical to do this study. A summary of each perspective (ethical versus not ethical) follows. For your response, you can expand on whichever perspective you choose to take.

Those who argue that it was ethical might adopt a Utilitarian perspective and insist that it was for the greater good, as in the knowledge gained by the research was so significant that gaining that information outweighed any potential harm caused to the participants. They might also suggest that the harm to participants was minimal, but the knowledge gained was at a maximum. Additionally, the researchers might argue that they did not anticipate such extreme adverse reactions from the study participants. Had they known what the outcome would be, perhaps they would not have carried out the study. In other words, they did knowingly put participants in harm's way; they did not intend to be unethical.

Other points in favor of the study being ethical:
- participants signed a consent form
- the study was approved by the Stanford Human Subjects Review Committee
- the American Psychological Association conducted an ethics evaluation in 1973 and concluded that all ethical guidelines had been followed

On the other hand, the study was planned for two weeks but was ended after only six days ...

Solution Summary

This library solution examines Zimbardo's Standford Prison Experiment and whether or not it was ethical to risk harm to the study participants in order to obtain the knowledge gained about human behavior during the study.