Zimbardo VS Milgram…Who is More Unethical?

It’s early morning and you hear police knocking down your door. They handcuff you and take you away in a police cruiser. You laugh as you think this is just a silly experiment. You arrive somewhere, but they put a paper bag on your head so you have no idea where you are. When you come to a place that looks pretty similar to an actual prison, they strip you naked, spray you with a liquid and put you into an ugly tan piece of clothing. You might still be giggling, but things are getting serious and you start to rebel a bit, playing it off all cool. These other students playing guards are wearing legitimate suits and they have a baton and you start to get intimidated. Two days pass and things are getting really intense. People are going crazy. Things aren’t so funny anymore now are they? Now you start to really question how serious things are going to get….

Could you imagine being in a completely authentic prison simulation such as this? Or maybe being forced to shock someone continuously like the Milgram experiment? Most people would say they wouldn’t go along with experiments such like these, but when you actually are in that situation, do you really know what you’d do?

Philip Zimbardo had many questions he wanted answers to. I mean, he was quite a well known psychologist, so his questions were going to be used for important purposes. However, he had one main question: Do bad situations turn good people evil? To answer this question he created an authentic prison simulation with college students as prisoners and guards and just told them to play the roles. The results were astounding.

He tied this experiment in with the Lucifer Effect. The Lucifer effect is wrapped around the subject that humans who are good are transformed to evil, and that evil is an just exercise of power. It’s also about the negatives people can become, not the bad in us all. He says that the system creates the situation that corrupts the individuals.

On the opposite hand, Stanley Milgram wanted to test people’s actions on authority. He brought in 20+ people to each do an experiment where they each “shocked” a person for each wrong question, and for each wrong question the shock increased. However, they never even shocked anyone. Milgram just wanted to see how far people would go to obey authority. But the reality about this is that no one was ever shocked. The teachers thought they were killing someone, but they actually weren’t.

Based on these two experiments, people question as to which one is more unethical. I personally believe that Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment was way more unethical than Milgram’s shock testing. These are my main reasons why:

  • his prisoners were physically abused
  • their deception was altered
  • their contracts were not taken in account for and were abused
  • the code of ethics was majorly disturbed

I personally wouldn’t even volunteer to be in a fake prison in the first place. I mean let’s be real here, how many people in today’s society would actually do that? But back then, college students would do anything for money, similar to today. But before Zimbardo accepted the student’s’ request to be in the experiment, he notified them that they might be embarrassed and their civil rights might be stripped. They also had to sign a contract with consent. But this didn’t stop the guards. Zimbardo basically threw college kids into a simulation in different attire telling them to be someone they only knew by society’s stereotypical standards. So that’s what they did. But it escalated quicker than anyone had expected.

As you could probably tell, the prisoners were physically abused. The first day they were stripped down naked, sprayed with a liquid, and searched. The guards put heavy bolted chains on their feet most of the day. The guards basically had total control over the prisoners. And to think all this happened because the guards felt like they had all the power, and because they THOUGHT they could.

But they weren’t just physically abused. Their deception was becoming altered as well. They didn’t even know who they were anymore. The guards put them in a small, dark and confining closet when they disobeyed. This really made the prisoners believe that this was all so real. To top this off, they didn’t have names anymore. Just numbers and IDs. Can you imagine being called a number? This made them feel so dehumanized and robot-like. These people were basically being treated as real criminals by the guards. The prisoners completely fell into their role and actually forgot they were college students in an experiment.

This experiment was completely filled with unethical things. For one thing, their contracts stated that they would not be hit. But that didn’t matter apparently, because the guards hit the prisoners anyway. However, I think the thing that confuses everyone is the question of, why Zimbardo didn’t intervene and stop it. They gave them their consent, but Zimbardo didn’t even take that into account.

The Code of Ethics was also majorly abused in this experiment. Here are the main ones.

Standard 2 abuses:

2.02- Zimbardo and his team didn’t provide any service for his prisoners who were mentally unstable afterwards.

2.06- Zimbardo started to fall into the role of the Prison Superintendent, and this interfered with his research.

Standard 3 abuses:

3.04- He didn’t do anything to keep the prisoners safe. He basically let everything happen without worry of their safety.

So again as I have been stating, Zimbardo’s experiment is clearly the most unethical according to all this information in my opinion. However, there are some people that are on Milgram’s side, saying his shock testing was the worst.

People for Milgram’s side could argue a few things. “Milgram basically lied about everything. The experimenter wasn’t real, the confederate learner wasn’t real, and they weren’t shocking anyone.” Well that makes no sense honestly. His experiment still doesn’t even compare to the level of Zimbardo’s. The prison experiment was completely authentic and real. All of this bad stuff happened for REAL. None of it was a lie. Sure, some of the Milgram participants might be a little traumatized, but not even close to the extent of the prisoners.

Another thing they could argue would be, “The learner was tied into a chair with electrodes and shock machines to make it look real and authentic.” Alright, so…these people argue that Milgram’s experiment seemed so real and such a horrible thing. Like I just stated, Zimbardo’s experiment was COMPLETELY real. Every single thing about his experiment was real. The people going crazy, Zimbardo falling into the role of prison superintendent, the physical and mental harm…that was all real. What was real in Milgram’s? The volunteers (teachers). That’s it.

Something else they could argue is, “65% of the teachers went to the full 450 volts.” Sure, that’s pretty bad, but in the prison experiment they had to end 8 days early because it got that horrible. AND, no physical harm was done to Milgram’s subjects. Clearly this stuff happened with Zimbardo. It doesn’t matter that the people were willing to shock people the whole way, the main point is that not single person was hurt.

Milgram did violate some of the Code Of Ethics however…

Standard 8 abuses

8.07- Milgram and his crew never completely told their participants what was going to happen.

Standard 4 abuses

4.03- Milgram didn’t have permission to record his participants.

Standard 9 abuses

9.07- They didn’t test the participants for mental stability before allowing them to participate.

I think I got my point across pretty clearly that the Stanford prison experiment is the most unethical psychological experiment between that and Milgram’s shock experiment. These tests overall show how human behavior relates to situations you are put in. In Zimbardo’s, the prisoners acted like actually prisoners because they felt completely obligated to. They were put into a horrible situation in which they didn’t know how to react to. The guards on the other hand got a small taste of power, and they took that completely out of proportion. The situation that they were specifically put in made them think they had total control.

In Milgram’s, the teachers felt obligated to continue shocking the learner just because someone higher than them was telling them to. From these results, I can conclude that human behavior all depends on your situation. Like Zimbardo said, bad situations turn good people evil. By being put in a bad situation, the experiment might start to violate the ethics of psychology, depending on how bad things get…

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