Standford Prison Experiment: Scientific and Ethical Components

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Scientists state that psychology is a science in which an individual’s behaviour, thoughts and feelings are used to understand the internal process which can lead people to behave the way they do. Psychologists have adopted numerous approaches to understanding such human behaviours. This essay will investigate the social approach and the biological approach in psychology. It will investigate the theorists Raine and Zimbardo and their research. In addition to this, these studies will relate to the key debates Nature vs Nurture and Free-Will vs Determinism.

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Social psychology covers a wide range of topics including people’s attitudes and beliefs, friendships, relationships, and social interactions in everyday life. We, as humans, are very social and spend much of our time in the company of others. Even when we are on our own, we use the knowledge of social interaction to make sense of our lives and reflect on social events and experiences. Social psychologists have developed an understanding of our behaviour and identified that it is influenced by other people and have researched the impact of social influence on our everyday behaviour. Research in this approach can be in the laboratory or the field and the form of questionnaires and/or interviews. The detailed information collected by researchers observes the social behaviour in groups, which could be adolescents, organisational groups, family groups etc. There are also case studies, in which a group is analysed in further detail.

One example of a case study in this approach is Zimbardo’s (1973) Standford Prison Experiment, which reveals how social roles can influence one’s behaviour. This was an exceptionally controversial study on conformity to social roles. Zimbardo aimed to examine if people would conform to certain roles when placed in a mock prison, either a prison guard or a prisoner. He also wanted to examine whether the behaviours displayed in the prison were due to the environment, (i.e., situational,) or if it was due to the people themselves (i.e., dispositional). For example, the prisoners and the guards may have had different personalities which would have made conflict inevitable, making guards hostile due to the power they held, and the prisoner’s lack of respect for law and order. Zimbardo predicted the situation made the people act the way they do, rather than their disposition.

21 male university students volunteered in response to a newspaper advert and were selected based on their mental and physical stability. Once accepted, they were paid $15 a day to take part and randomly assigned one of the two roles, either a prisoner or a guard.

Wanting to make the experience more ‘realistic’, Zimbardo turned the basement of Standford University into a mock prison and the ‘prisoners’ were arrested by local police officers. They were stripped, given a numbered outfit to wear, fingerprinted and had their ankles chained. The ‘officers’ were given uniforms, handcuffs, a truncheon and dark reflective sunglasses and were instructed to run the ‘prison’ without using any violence.

Zimbardo found that both the prisoners and guards quickly identified their social roles and within days the prisoners rebelled. The guards grew increasingly abusive towards the prisoners, even waking them during the night to force them to clean toilets with their bare hands. The prisoners quickly became submissive identifying even further with their ‘lesser’ role. Five of the prisoners were released from the case study early due to adverse reactions from the mental and physical torment, and the entire experiment itself was concluded after six days, initially set to run for two weeks, after it was alleged to be inhumane. Zimbardo concluded that people were quick to conform to their social roles, even if that role went against their own moral beliefs. Additionally, he found that situational elements were responsible for a lot of the behaviour as none of the participants had exhibited such behaviour previously, therefore supporting the situational explanation of behaviour rather than the dispositional one.

Most of the guards stated they were acting as if they were playing a role, which means the findings of this study cannot be reasonably generalised to real life as their behaviour may not be influenced by the same factors, but there is considerable evidence that all of the participants did react as though it was real, for example, the behaviour of all participants during the study when compared to their behaviour before. The validity is also compromised as the study only involved male university students from the US, and therefore cannot be applied to female prisoners or people from other countries.     In conclusion. Ethically, the Standford Prison Experiment was very unpredictable which meant there was a lack of consent from the participants. The prisoners were arrested at home, which was also not consented to. They were not protected from being mentally or physically harmed and experienced humiliation and distress. Debriefing sessions were held afterwards, with Zimbardo concluding there were no lasting negative effects.

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