Social Question

whiteliondreams's avatar

Was the Stanford Prison Experiment ethical?

Asked by whiteliondreams (1698 points ) June 8th, 2012

I had taken psychology a couple of months ago and had to answer this question, but to no avail were the perspectives I viewed anywhere near the logical interpretation I anticipated. In defining ethical, must something be right to the masses (mores) and wrong to the masses (taboos) or, is something ethical in human nature if it does not affect another human’s property, will, or general dispositions?

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

32 Answers

Trillian's avatar

Ethics was entirely beside the point of the experiment. I would say that even though it was aborted early, much can be said about human behaviour with what we have.
An interesting aside, in my opinion, would be a comparative study of levels of testosterone in each of the members of the experiment. Dr Sapolsky’s studies of primates have some significant implications concerning testosterone levels, alpha male behaviour, stress and group dynamics. These findings add a bit of a proviso the the the Stanford prison experiment, or at least an additional variable which bears consideration.

josie's avatar

Ethics, sadly, is discussed in two contexts these days, and the term is subject to frequent and hopeless equivocation.
Ethics on one hand is branch of philosophy that determines how and why you make judgements that determine your survival since a. you want to survive b. you have free will and thus must choose your voluntary actions and c. you hold ideas in an abstract form and thus you are prone to error and so it pays to have a pre established check list of behaviour ( a moral code) before you embark on the serious business of confronting the alternative of life and death. Ethics in this context is independent of social circumstance. The principles would apply to single person on a desert island, or the same person on a city street.

On the other hand, ethics has also been used to describe how we should treat each other, which is not really ethics, but politics.
This is simply a set of social conventions, subject to change depending on time and place, how laws are determined, who is determining them etc.

So these days in order to answer the question, we have to go through the laborious process of qualification based on context, so that we do not equivocate.

Having said that, since the participants volunteered, since nobody was physically harmed, since it provided information about the nature of the relationship between prisoners and their guards, I would say it violated neither principles philosophical ethics, nor the social politics of the time (1970s).

wundayatta's avatar

It’s really very simple. Ethical treatment of human subjects requires they experience no harm as a result of the experiment. There was all kinds of harm done the subjects in the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Trillian's avatar

@whiteliondreams to further muddy the waters here, I’m going to take exception to the above comment. What constitutes harm? Who says that harm is a bad thing? We learn to cope with lifes large frustrations as an adult by learning to deal with the smaller frustrations as children?
Who says life is ever fair? Who can say that valuable life lessons learned by some participants did not help them years down the road?
You could even argue that a person in the experiment avoided an untimely death by being there instead of somewhere else.
You cannot make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Our lessons in human behaviour frequently come from pushing the envelope. We have the luxury of retrospect and pointing fingers. Some avail themselves of that luxury. Some choose to try to learn from those who have made studies. Some choose to further studies and contribute. How do ethics apply in any of those scenarios?
What do you choose to do? Are you going to act?

wundayatta's avatar

@Trillian Harm may have a benefit—for sure. But the rules of science are that research on human subjects must not make their condition worse. As soon as it is discovered that this is happening, the research must be halted.

Your hypothetical that harm now may result in benefit later is too speculative. You can do that on your own time. A scientist can not get IRB approval for such an experiment. And it isn’t just the subjects that you can’t harm. The research must not harm the researcher(s), either.

Did you read about the Stanford Prison Experiment? Our own little Abu Graib, it seems.

bolwerk's avatar

The question seems a little confusing to me. Are you asking if it’s ethical based on social norms? That seems like a resounding no, even given the inability to anticipate what would happen. (That experiment is probably why ethics are such an important part of research design now.)

As for relating SPE back to “human’s property, will, or general dispositions,” the answer even seems more like a resounding no.

Trillian's avatar

@wundayatta I’m very familiar with the experiment. Also the Milgram experiment. Also many studies involving simians. You say that my thoughts about harm are speculative. I concur.
I also disagree with your assessment.
I notice that you do not address my ideas about further study regarding the testosterone/alpha male/stress/group dynamics.
You fail to grasp that those dynamics are played out every day, all over the world.
The question then becomes; “What is the underlying cause of this behaviour?” And further; “What impact does this behaviour have on society?, Would society be better off without it?” If the answer is yes, then; “How can this behaviour be eradicated?”
I again refer you back to Dr Sapolsky. Read the research and findings. Then ask the next question.

nikipedia's avatar

@Trillian, are you meaning to argue that the prison guards had higher basal testosterone levels than the prisoners?

Phillip Zimbardo, the lead researcher on the Stanford Prison Study, recently answered questions about it and his other work on Reddit.

Trillian's avatar

@nikipedia I’d be interested to find out. And no, certainly not only the guards, since they were chosen at random. But it would be interesting to know the levels of all the participants and then compare that to the individual behaviour of each participant.
Ah, thanks for the addendum. I will certainly look into it.
Are you familiar with Dr Sapolsky’s work?

nikipedia's avatar

@Trillian, is there a particular hypothesis you’d like to test? I may be able to find you a reference. (I don’t work on aggression but do include testosterone measurements in my experiments so I have some familiarity with the literature.)

nikipedia's avatar

@wundayatta, I just want to clarify a few things that you brought up. In some instances, IRBs will approve studies with the potential to cause harm, as long as the benefits are seen to be greater than the risks, and the potential harms are minimized. For instance, consider clinical trials of very risky new drugs—these could be very harmful, but if they have a significant potential benefit, all possible precautions are taken, and participants provide informed consent, they may yet be approved.

IRBs will also permit minor levels of harm or discomfort as long as some benefit can be demonstrated. In my lab, we deal with this regularly. We intentionally put people in stressful, uncomfortable, or painful situations to induce a stress response. We have to do this in order to study the stress response, and the IRB considers the cost/benefit ratio acceptable. But again, the harms are minimized and all participants have to provide informed consent.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I don’t think it was. In reading, it is implied that all the participants were volunteers and were able to quit when they wanted. They were all roll playing and they knew it.

flutherother's avatar

It was an unethical experiment and the experimenters were blind to the harm they were doing. Just because something is called an ‘experiment’ and is carried out by ‘scientists’ doesn’t mean it is ethical. The participants probably thought that scientists must be ethical and that’s why they volunteered.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@flutherother But they were able to quit at any time. In that regard, it wasn’t even a good experiment.

wundayatta's avatar

@nikipedia The devil is in the details, of course. Minor levels of harm. And the drug trials are probably usually cases where the people are in imminent danger of death, anyway. It’s a last chance kind of drug trial.

Since Tuskeegee, IRBs are extra careful, I believe. It is extremely difficult to get permission to do anything that might cause harm. Of course, they have to judge the level of harm. You speak of stress, and there are all kinds of levels of stress. How much do they allow you to induce? How does that compare to Stanford?

@Dutchess_III Are you talking about Stanford? Because they weren’t actually allowed to quit “at any time.” There was one subject who had a break down, and they didn’t allow him to go until they had pressured him further and became convinced his break down was real. That was some time later. And the experiment set up pressures that caused the subjects to have difficulty quitting even though they probably wanted to.

@Trillian As for the dynamics of testosterone-influenced behavior that are played out all over the world, I pretty much think that makes a clear case for the unethical nature of Stanford. If things are as you say, then there is no need for anything like Stanford. We only need observe in order to capture natural experiments that would help us understand human behavior in a variety of conditions. There is no need to induce harm in human subjects in order to gather the information we need. We only have to be a little bit clever in order to figure out how to get what we want. Granted, it’s not a controlled experiment, but then, Stanford was hardly controlled either, was it?

Dutchess_III's avatar

@wundayatta the Wiki link says, Two of the prisoners quit the experiment early.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I think it was a game. Humans have endured far harsher situations for a thousand times longer.

wundayatta's avatar

@Dutchess_III Yes. They quit early, but not as soon as they wanted to quit. The first one was not allowed to quit for several hours at least. Perhaps overnight, if I remember correctly. At first, they thought he was pretending to go insane. It took them a while to realize he really was in trouble, and they let him quit at that time.

It was a simulation, but it turned out far more seriously then the PIs expected. Within two days, college students with no prison guard training were acting exactly the same as Nazi guards in Treblinka. They also invented all the techniques that real prisons use to humiliate and subdue prisoners. That was the surprising result. It was no game, although they expected a game. It led to conditions exactly the same as Abu Graib and other horrible prisons in less than a week. The prisoners were cowed and unable to exert free will within hours using these techniques. You should read the account at the link I provided above. It’s the account by the PI. I think you’ll find your ideas about it to change.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I didn’t see where the first two weren’t allowed to leave for several hours. Could you post that for me?

I read about the third one acting like he was going insane. I’m sure they figured he was just more roll playing. It took a day or so, but when they realized he was “serious” they let him go. If they hadn’t, and if they hadn’t let the first two go when they wanted, that silly experiment would have moved in the realm of unethical.

flutherother's avatar

They were all volunteers and could have quit at any time but they didn’t. The experience was very immersive and no longer felt like an experiment but became a real prisoner guard situation. At one point they set up a fake parole board to interview the prisoners and offered to free them if they agreed to forfeit all they had earned to date. (They got $15:00 a day.) All but two of the prisoners agreed to this yet at the end of the parole board meeting they all went meekly back to their cells.

I think the only subjects that left the experiment were the ones showing signs of acute emotional upset and even then they didn’t get out immediately as it was thought they were pretending.

wundayatta's avatar

@Dutchess_III
From the site I linked to above:

The First Prisoner Released

Less than 36 hours into the experiment, Prisoner #8612 began suffering from acute emotional disturbance, disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying, and rage. In spite of all of this, we had already come to think so much like prison authorities that we thought he was trying to “con” us—to fool us into releasing him.

When our primary prison consultant interviewed Prisoner #8612, the consultant chided him for being so weak, and told him what kind of abuse he could expect from the guards and the prisoners if he were in San Quentin Prison. #8612 was then given the offer of becoming an informant in exchange for no further guard harassment. He was told to think it over.

During the next count, Prisoner #8612 told other prisoners, “You can’t leave. You can’t quit.” That sent a chilling message and heightened their sense of really being imprisoned. #8612 then began to act “crazy,” to scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control. It took quite a while before we became convinced that he was really suffering and that we had to release him.

They said it took “quite a while” before they believed him and released him. They don’t quantify that. I’m guessing it took hours, but it could have been overnight, too.

janbb's avatar

My ong good answer got blown out. Short answer – read Zimbardo’s take on it; yes, unethical.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@Trillian This is what I was looking for. I respect everyones response and perspective, but your answer is exactly what I was looking for. I am very aware of the implications of pushing the envelope and making scientific sacrifices. How else would we advance? Why does Europe continue to do stem cell research at the most unethical level, while Americans stifle in the mud of political ethics? Thank you.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@wundayatta I understood that there was one who was freaking out and they didn’t release him for several hours. They thought he was faking it. I got that about #8612. I’m referring to the other two that “Quit the experiment early.” There is nothing that I saw that indicated they were detained.

Nullo's avatar

No, though it was educational.

Trillian's avatar

@nikipedia Thanks for the offer. I’m extremely interested to see any links that you could provide. I don’t have the resources to test a theory, but I believe that stress, or the lack of stress is a significant factor. How much does stress contribute to the inability of a person to reach their full potential? If you get a chance to look a a documentary called “between the Folds”, there is a young man featured in the second half. He’s the youngest professor at MIT, and his contributiions to society are already impressive. If you think about the stress free environment in which he seems to have been raised, it makes me wonder how much of the result is nature and how much is nurture.
If you look at Dr Sapolsky’s potentially related findings regarding stress and group dynamics, you should be able to see what questions I’m raising.
We needed testosterong laden males when we had our environment trying to kill us. THere is so much less need today. And the inherent stress of how our society is modeled is a negative factor in so many aspects that one can’t even name them all.
So any studies that show the effects of testosterone on behaviour of individuals and groups, stress related problems, non-stressful behaviours, that would be more than I could hope for.
I believe that groups consisting of males and females with very low levels of testosterone function more fairly, with less stress and stress related negative problems. I also believe that people raised in these environments are more able to fully reach their potential development which in turn benefits entire societies.
Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my original posts.

mattbrowne's avatar

In retrospect, no. But keep in mind it was terminated after 6 days.

janbb's avatar

@mattbrowne It was terminated when an outside observer – who later became Zimbardo’s wife -told him he had to stop it. He admits he had become corrupted in his role as warden.

mattbrowne's avatar

@janbb – Thanks for that! I wasn’t aware of it. I still haven’t finished his book “The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil”.

janbb's avatar

His work is fascinating!

mattbrowne's avatar

It is indeed. Getting this deeper understanding about human nature might help politicians and social workers and the military prevent conditions that let humans unleash their hidden brutality. Right now I’m reading a related and equally fascinating book: “Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are” by Frans De Waal. The differences between chimps and bonobos seem key to him. He also wrote a more recent book called “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society”.

Trillian's avatar

@nikipedia I’m off today and reading the link you provided. I like the answers about the Milgram experiment and social isolation. It is in line with something I was just thinking about for the past week or so; our society makes isolation possible in many ways, and I believe that this is a factor in bad behaviour all across the spectrum, from violence and murder all the way down to being a complete douchebag to strangers for no reason other than that we can.
The question remains though, as in Milgram’s studies; what is driving that behaviour? Why do some choose to engage in it and others not?

Answer this question

Login

or

Join

to answer.
Your answer will be saved while you login or join.

Have a question? Ask Fluther!

What do you know more about?
or
Knowledge Networking @ Fluther