The seemingly monstrous acts of those who are put into an authoritative role and the oddly submissive reaction of those who find themselves in the contradicting inferior role have often been the subjects of psychological research. Prior to the establishment of the American Psychological Association’s Code of Conduct, many of these studies were conducted without adequate regard to the effects that the research would have on the participants of the experiment. Though the data that was collected has offered extraordinary insight as to the human ability to be altered through circumstances, the negativity of the long term psychological effects on the participants far outweigh the benefits from the data collected. These researchers, though their intentions were truly scientific research, warranted the necessity of enacting standards of research. One of the more infamous studies that defined this necessity was headed by Philip G. Zimbardo and is discussed as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

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The intentions of the experiment was to determine how average individuals would react when they were either thrust into the role of a guard or a prisoner in attempt to better understand the prison environment. The participants of the study “had answered an ad in the local newspaper inviting volunteers for a study of prison life that would run up to 2 weeks for the pay of $15 a day (Zimbardo, 2000, pg. 5). The researchers ran several tests on the volunteers and chose the twenty four who seemed the most mentally and physically capable of participating. Of these two dozen participants they selected half each to act as guards and prisoners. There were no indicators of differences in mental or physical capacities between the two as the selection was random (Zimbardo, 2000, pg. 5). Video taping and voice monitoring was established in order to collect important data from the experiment.

After the first full day of the experiment, the lines between the individuals and their experimental roles became increasingly blurred. As the experiment progressed, it is notable that “Within days the “guards” had become swaggering and sadistic, to the point of placing bags over the prisoners’ heads, forcing them to strip naked and encouraging them to perform sexual acts” (Schwartz, 2004). Though the participants were aware that they were part of a study, both the “guards” and the “prisoners” emerged themselves in their roles so intensely that the study had to be abruptly ended after only six of the intended fourteen days that it was scheduled to continue in order to protect the participants from further trauma. What was learned about the prison system and the impact of the role on authoritative figures and their inferiors, though obtained in such a heinous manner, has been utilized in research in many fields of study.

Though the information was valuable, the unethical manner in which the study was conducted left lasting psychological damage to the participants. The informed consent of the participants was, to some extent expressed, as “both groups had completed informed-consent forms indicating that some of their basic civil rights would have to be violated if they were selected for the prisoner role and that only minimally adequate diet and health care would be provided (Zimbardo, 2000, pg. 6). However, the extremities in which these civil rights were violated places this experiment in a category of severe unethical proportions. Particularly, as Zimbardo began to realize that he was no longer acting as a researcher, but rather as a prison authority, he witnessed the conflicts between the scientific study and the safety of the participants but he failed “to resolve these conflicts in a responsible fashion that avoids or minimizes harm” (American Psychological Association, 2014, pg. 3). Additionally, one the harm was done, the researchers neglected to “take reasonable steps to minimize the harm” (American Psychological Association, 2014, pg. 11). The resulting trauma on the participants was not only physical but psychological as well.

Understanding that, in order to get the same effect as a prison scenario, a certain amount of humiliation and dehumanization was necessary, this experiment could have easily been conducted without unnecessary anguish to the participants. As Zimbardo and the other researchers had cooperation from the police department noting that they made the arrests for the experiment, their access through the university likely extended to the prison system. The research could then have been conducted at such a facility as new guards were being trained.

For instance, the American Psychological Association states in article 8.07 that a study may be conducted under reasonable deception if “deceptive techniques is justified by the study’s significant prospective scientific, educational or applied value and that effective nondeceptive alternative procedures are not feasible” (2014, pg. 11). Within this principle, it would be feasible to place researchers into a class of new guard trainees. They would receive the same training as the other guards, yet they would be debriefed each day. Respecting the confidentiality of the other guards, they could anonymously report on the transition that these guards make through the application process and into the role of authority. While in position, the researchers would be able to also document the reactions of inmates as they were brought into the facility. As all other participants would be unaware of the research, the researchers would serve as a control and the real life setting would be a successful indicator of the human nature in the given roles. Without any added stress or incentives to the blind participants, no additional stress or harm would come to them.

  • American Psychological Association. (2014). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. [Data file]. Retrievedfrom
  • Schwartz, J. (May 6, 2004). Simulated prison in ’71 showed a fine line between ‘normal’ and ‘monster.’ New York Times,p. A20. Retrieved from
  • Zimbardo, P. G., Maslach, C., & Haney, C. (2000).Reflections on the Stanford Prison Experiment: Genesis, transformations, consequences. In T. Blass (Ed.),Obedience to authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram paradigm (pp.193-237). Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum. Retrieved from