The Heated Controversy between Stanley Milgram and Phillip Zimbardo

For $15 a day, would you sign up to participate in a psychological experiment on prison life? Yeah, I would too. But this experiment is far from what you expected; you are beaten, harassed, stripped and humiliated. Worst of all, you are dehumanized. And all of this physical and psychological abuse causes psychological damage, that you just can’t shake off in a few days.

Now, you’re probably thinking, This seems too unethical and torturous to be real. No one could ever conduct an experiment that would intentionally harm humans. However, this thought is completely false. One of the most famous psychology experiments, The Stanford Prison Experiment, was a study in which this actually happened. It was conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971 and is deemed as one of the most unethical experiments to date. It was so unethical that an ethics code had to be established because experiments like it needed to be terminated for the future.

The learner’s wires were removed before the experiment started, leaving the participant to think that they were actually delivering the shocks.

Some people have a different opinion on which study was the most unethical. People continue to argue that the infamous study conducted by Stanley Milgram was the most unethical psychological study ever to take place. This took place after the Holocaust, in 1963, and it was conducted to study how far people would go to obey authority. In this experiment, participants were told that they were doing a study on learning and memory, but the participants were actually being studied by Milgram to see how many commands they would obey. Volunteers had to inflict harm on the “learner” by delivering shocks to them when the “authority” told them to. When the experiment was finished, the learner was brought in to the participants. “Participants were debriefed after the experiment and showed much relief at finding they had not harmed the student”. This unethical experiment caused participants a brief amount of psychological stress, as they were manipulated into the study.

After reviewing both experiments and doing countless hours of research, I have come to the conclusion that Philip Zimbardo’s grandiose prison study is by far the most unethical psychology study. This experiment breaks many modern day APA ethical codes as well (codes that had to be put in place because of this study). In this experiment, male college students were paid to participate in the study of prison life. They were divided and assigned random roles of either a guard or a prisoner. Students were given no prior training, and were expected to just play out their roles to see what would happen. It was supposed to last two weeks, but had to be put to an end just six days, after things quickly got out of hand. The experiment took a dark twist as the prisoners suffered extreme amounts of physical abuse that they did not consent to. “He made it clear that prisoners could not be physically harmed, but said the guards should try to create an atmosphere in which prisoners felt powerless”. Zimbardo told the guards that they were not supposed to beat the prisoners, but he did not take proper precautions to ensure that this would not happen. This was a very unethical element of the experiment, and violates ethics code 3.04. The guards made sure they did everything they could to dehumanize the prisoners. The prisoners endured not only physical abuse, but sexual abuse and humiliation as well, all at the hands of their peers. “At various times, they were taunted, stripped naked, deprived of sleep and forced to use plastic buckets as toilets. As the situation descended into chaos, the researchers stood by and watched-until one of their colleagues finally spoke out”. In my opinion, the most unethical part of this experiment was not the abuse itself, but the fact that Zimbardo and his team did not do anything to stop this until they were confronted. Zimbardo wanted to go as long as he could with this to obtain the most desirable results, even if that meant letting these students suffer. I really do believe that if one of Zimbardo’s colleagues didn’t speak up, then he would have let this experiment unfold for the next two weeks and possibly even longer. I don’t think he would have stopped until something tragic would occur, like death.

The “Guards” wore sunglasses for a more mysterious element.

Another reason why The Stanford Prison Experiment was the most unethical study is due to the informed consent for the participants. Like I stated previously, the prisoners did not consent to physical or sexual abuse. They didn’t sign up for this and this caused a great deal of psychological harm after the experiment ended. In addition, they were unaware of the house arrests in which real policemen came to their homes and took them away in a real police car. This was unexpected, causing them stress even before the experiment really began. Not only did the staged arrests cause stress, but I personally know it would cause humiliation. The neighbors did most likely not know about the students participating in an experiment, so they probably thought it was a real arrest. How embarrassing!

On a quick note, Philip Zimbardo was not only the psychologist studying the experiment, but he also played the role as prison superintendent (this is a violation of code Conflict of Interest, 3.06). He gave commands to the guards, and admitted that he got so caught up in the experiment, that he actually “forgot” he was really a psychologist. Due to this, the experiment lacked a stable, unbiased leader, and this made it more difficult to distinguish the line between what was acting and what was reality.

As mentioned earlier, there a quite a few who believe that compared to Milgram’s Obedience Study, Zimbardo’s experiment was not as unethical. They say that their study was more unethical because participants were lied to about the nature of the study. This is true, as Milgram’s participants were manipulated, however participants in Zimbardo’s still had a lack of consent. They were given very vague details to start, and were not informed about the staged house arrests. In addition, they did not consent to harassment, and humiliation. Supporters of the obedience experiment also argue that their study was more unethical because the volunteers suffered psychological damage that they “didn’t sign up for”. To me, this counterargument is sort of invalid, as people in general don’t sign up for psychological damage. Zimbardo’s participants did not sign up for the physical and sexual abuse, which caused psychological damage. The prisoners also did not sign up to be dehumanized. Lastly, people argue that Milgram’s was more unethical because he performed this experiment many times on a lot more people. Even though Milgram used by far more people. the people Zimbardo used were participating for a much more extensive time period. I can definitely say that this inflicted longer lasting, more dramatic effects to the psychies of the participants in Zimbardo’s, then to Milgram’s. I acknowledge and understand the competing views of Milgram’s experiment, but clearly it is obvious to hand most unethical experiment to Philip Zimbardo.

Image of Abu Ghraib prisoner being hanged and covered in the cell can be compared to the torture of the prisoners in The Stanford Prison Experiment.

The Stanford Prison Experiment can be compared to a more recent, real life event: Abu Ghraib. A quick summarization of what happened at Abu Ghraib can be found here. After analyzing both Zimbardo’s study and Abu Ghraib, there is a clear correlation between the two. The guards in both cases were given a great amount of power that they really were not trained to use and it spiraled out of control. Most then became sadistic, enjoying the torture and power they had over others. Both were unethical because authoritative figures just threw untrained people into powerful positions that they were too immature to handle. And as a result, the prisoners were seriously abused and psychologically damaged by the faults of the guards/soldiers.

The biggest implication that I can conclude is that people respond in a different manner to unusual situations. People also tend to get caught up in a situation easily. Speaking for Zimbardo’s results, the guards probably didn’t think that they were capable of causing harm to people and would most likely never hurt anyone again. The biggest shock about the guards to me is that they were just normal people, like me and you! The people in the Milgram scenario blindly obeyed the commander, because they were just caught up in the situation. And I think both experiments also represented that people tend to blindly obey to authority, even when they don’t realize they are doing something evil.

To be honest, both of these experiments were terrible studies that never should have occurred. They did contribute to helping society understand how and why people behave certain ways, but these studies really weren’t necessary. It is a good thing that an ethics code was put into place to regulate studies. Thankfully, an experiment like Zimbardo’s won’t be happening anytime soon.

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