The Unethical Showdown: Milgram VS. Zimbardo

Maddie Curtin

If you had to choose between which experiment in Psychology was more unethical, which one would you pick? Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, or Milgram’s Obedience Experiment? In Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, he had college aged students volunteer to become a guard or a prisoner for a duration of two weeks. Zimbardo’s main goal for this experiment was to see what happens to people in prison. In Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiment, there was a teacher and a learner. The teacher would ask questions, and if the learner would respond wrong, the teacher would shock them. I personally think that Zimbardo’s experiment was the most unethical, but I also see why people would argue that Milgram’s was the most unethical.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was run by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in 1971 and it was set up to see what actually happens inside of a prison, contrary to what we believe happens. The study was set to run a two week time period, but it was ended in the first 6 days because of how horrible it was. Zimbardo has a very complex study, that kind of just took a course of its own. Dr. Zimbardo’s main goal for this experiment was to see the psychological affects on a person in prison. He wanted his experiment to be as authentic as possible, which meant the cells had to look real, and everything had to seem as if it was an actual prison, and not the basement of Stanford’s psychology building. The prisoners also had to sign a waiver explaining what the whole experiment was about and they basically had to agree to the terms and conditions. One Sunday afternoon, Palo Alto police officers showed up at each of the prisoner’s houses, and arrested them. This was so unethical because none of them were warned about being arrested, and this is just the start of the humiliation and embarrassment. When the prisoners got to the prison, they were stripped naked and were given a gown and a number. They no longer were called by their names, only by their numbers. If you asked why the prisoners were clothed in women’s gowns, that is because it was all part of the dehumanization and humiliation process. Zimbardo put the men in gowns to make them feel less manly and embarrassed. One of the most unethical things about this experiment, was the fact that the prisoners were completely humiliated and abused by the guards. I mean the prisoners didn’t even do anything bad, but because the prison was so authentic the guards felt like they had legitimate power over the prisoners. It’s also so unethical because no one stepped in as soon as the prisoners were being physically abused, and that was totally against Zimbardo’s prison rules, but he was so blindsided by his own experiment that he didn’t even realize the complete chaos that was going on. Zimbardo got so caught up in his own experiment to the point where he couldn’t even differentiate himself as a psychologist or a prison ward, so that kind of shows the extremity of the experiment. Another really unethical part of the experiment was the fact that everyone involved forgot about reality to a certain degree. Everyone involved got so caught up in the midst of it all, and the fact that everything was so authentic makes me believe that this entire experiment was so unethical. I know it sounds absolutely crazy to forget about reality and what is real and who you are, but if you think about it, these college kids were ripped out of their lives and thrown into a prison where the only people they could talk to were the other prison mates. They had all communication with the outside world cut off, and they didn’t have control over their own lives anymore. I think with how the experiment was set up, it wouldn’t be too hard to get caught up and forget about reality. Zimbardo’s study was also unethical because it made the prisoners believe that they had no free will. The prisoners were allowed to leave whenever they wanted, but I think the main reason for why they stayed would be because of the fear. You know something is unethical when people are afraid to do something without knowing about the consequences. I want to believe that the prisoners stayed because they were terrified to know what the consequences would be if they left, would they be beaten, or would they just be allowed to go? I think that is one of the hardest questions to answer considering none of the prisoners left on their own will before the experiment was over. The study ended after six days because it got way out of hand. Zimbardo’s girlfriend, now wife, stepped in and told him that these are just kids, not actual prisoners. It took someone from the outside looking in to realize how bad the situation actually was, and if the people on the inside couldn’t see how awful it was, then you also know how extreme the entire experiment was. The prisoners were literally having mental breakdowns, and it was almost as if they were abused to the point where they just completely broke. Overall, Zimbardo’s experiment was so unethical and dehumanizing and should’ve never been taken to the extent that it was.

The last thing that I think makes the entire experiment so unethical was the fact that none of the guards had any training whatsoever. They were just thrown into a bad situation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bad people, it’s just the way the experiment was set up, and I mean it’s not like Zimbardo could be mad at the guards or the prisoners for what they did because they didn’t have any training or expectations. I think the whole experiment was taken way too far, and I think that the psychological damage that occurred on the prisoners and the guards is something that will probably stay there for the duration of their lives, even if they went through therapy. And no amount of therapy or debriefing, or really anything is going to take that pain away.

Zimbardo’s experiment proved in many ways how a prison situation is different than the way it is perceived in the media. I found a connection between Zimbardo’s experiment and recent events dealing with Abu Ghraib. In case you don’t know the whole Abu Ghraib situation, here are a few basic things you need to know. The Baghdad Central Prison, a prison in Abu Ghraib, Iraq was a place where unexplainably horrible events took place during the Iraq war. American soldiers were put in a situation where they had absolutely no training for the work they were assigned. That sounds awfully familiar doesn’t it? American soldiers also beat, brutalized, raped and murdered the people in this prison. Maybe Zimbardo’s experiment wasn’t as brutal, but the events are very similar. Abu Ghraib is a real life example of the ideas and events behind Zimbardo’s experiment. Innocent people were selected to do something where they were not trained, and because they were in a bad situation, they turned into different people. It is very hard to believe that the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib were evil, and it is also very hard to believe that the college aged guards were evil as well. The research on this study has really made me question my perception of evil. Are people born evil, or do the situations that they are put in turn them into evil people? I constantly question this, especially when I see bad things happening in the world. I’m not really sure where my perception of evil stands, but maybe it’s not the people who are evil, but what if the situation is evil? Zimbardo’s study and the Abu Ghraib events open a world of doors and new questions lurk around every corner.

I really don’t think Milgram’s experiment has any comparison to Zimbardo’s considering there was no physical harm in Milgram’s experiment, and Zimbardo’s was so much more unethical. Stanley Milgram’s experiment took place almost ten years before Zimbardo’s. A really interesting thing that I learned while researching was the fact that both Zimbardo and Milgram knew each other because they went to school together. In 1961 Milgram started a series of studies based on blind obedience and events that went on during WW2, especially in Nazi, Germany. The idea behind the study was to learn about the tactics of the Nazi party, and to understand how far people will go just to obey authority. The experiment itself was pretty simple. There was a teacher and a learner, and the learner would go through a series of questions, and every time they answered something wrong, the teacher would shock them. Now you have to understand that no human was actually ever shocked, there was a voice recording where a man would scream and tell the teacher to stop shocking them. This tactic is actually very unethical because the teachers honestly thought that they were physically harming innocent people. Milgram’s experiment in its entirety was basically unethical because he lied to all of the participants. The people participating thought he was doing an experiment on testing and how shocks affect the way people learn, but that is just the beginning of the lies within this experiment. The real idea behind the experiment was to test the idea of blind obedience and how far people would actually go when obeying an authoritative figure. Milgram had invented this shock box thing that basically had a certain number of voltages that started at 15 and went all the way up to 450 volts, or XXX. Every time a learner answered a question wrong, they would be shocked. Over the course of a few years, Milgram had done the experiment 16 times all showing similar results. 61–66% of all people involved in the experiment went all the way up on the shock box with the risk of killing the person in the other room. I honestly don’t really see how people find Milgram’s experiment more unethical, like yes I understand that Milgram lied about his true intentions of the experiment, and he lied about people actually being shocked. I was always taught that lying is never the right thing to do, but I mean if he lied for the sake of the experiment and it’s true intentions is that really that unethical? I think if anything the part that is the most unethical is the fact that the 61–66% of people that completed the experiment had to live with the fact that they would obey authority to the extremity of potentially killing a person. If I was in this experiment and I chose to stay for the duration and successfully completed the experiment, I think I would be terrified to look at myself in the mirror because of what I am capable of doing under the influence of power. I would like to think that the people that actually participated in the experiment felt the same way. I know as a fact that I wouldn’t be able to look at myself the same way. I think this realization can really take a toll on a person… I mean you are literally capable of murder just because you are told to continue to do something. This realization proposed a question, when under the influence of authority or power, how far will people go to do what they are told? I have a lot of hope in humanity, but this experiment showed me that power is this incredible force that maybe some people fear and maybe that is why people’s ethics and moral codes are violated when under the influence of authority.

As stated before, I think Zimbardo’s experiment is by far the most unethical of the two. Many people would argue that Milgram lied about his experiment and what the true meaning of it was, and while this is true, it really has no comparison to the events that went on in the Stanford Prison Experiment because the prisoners were physically abused and were never told that that was going to happen. The teachers in Milgram’s experiment realized that they could obey an authoritative figure to the extent of possibly killing someone. The teachers could think of that on a daily, but the prisoners and guards may be terrified for the rest of their lives and could constantly replay their time in prison. Another valid argument made from Milgram’s study would be that he never gave clear instructions on the teachers being able to withdraw from the experiment without being pressured into staying. If Milgram actually gave clear instructions on withdrawing the experiment, the outcomes wouldn’t have been so shocking, (and no I don’t mean that literally). The prisoners in Zimbardo’s experiment were so brainwashed by the situation to the degree where they legitimately forgot about their own free will, and the fact that it was an experiment, and they could leave at any given time.

There are many APA violations within Zimbardo’s experiment:

2.01B: Zimbardo’s experiment was completely unpredictable.

2.06B: Zimbardo was too caught up and couldn’t make decisions.

3.03:Guards were too power hungry to realize they were hurting prisoners.

3.04: Zimbardo didn;t protect volunteers from harm.

3.06: Zimbardo’s legitimacy as experiment leader/psychologist was compromised.

3.10B: The dangers, results and procedures weren’t fully explained.

8.07: Zimbardo didn’t warn participants about physical pain or emotional distress.

All in all, I stand firm in my opinion that Zimbardo’s study was by far more unethical than Milgram’s for many reasons, but mainly because of the extremity of the experiment and what kind of torture and abuse went on through the duration of the 6 days. Stanley Milgram’s experiment can also be argued as the most unethical, but he lied for the sake of the experiment while the prisoners were physically abused by the guards.