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Zimbardo’s prison experiment: do the ends justify the means of the ethical implications?

Zimbardo’s experimental results uncovered a major shock in the psychological world. On a closer look, the experiment was deemed completely unethical. However, the question to ask, is whether the rights of these participants were grossly breached, or whether the world just couldn’t handle the way the ‘normal population’ handled the situation.*So let us take a closer look at the ethical implications that Zimbardo has been ‘shunned’ for. Deception is a highly risky topic. The APA state that decpetion may be used ‘when it is absolutely unavoidable, and debriefing must be provided’. It also states it must be avoided if  ‘reasonably expected to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress’**. In terms of deception, Zimbardo did not break the rules. Although he didn’t explain the reasoning for the experiment in it’s entirity, he did tell the participants the general aim of the study, as well as debriefing them fully once it terminated. Nobody in the psychological world expected that the results be so severe, so the latter rule did not even have to be considered.

Informed consent is also another area Zimbardo has been critisied about. According to the APA, informed consent must inform the participant of the risks involved within the experiment.*** Again, Zimbardo and his team had no idea that the experiment would turn out as it did. As the essay**** indicates, human’s are highly unpredictable creatures and don’t always act as predicted.
The only ethical implication that Zimbardo blatantly neglected outright, was that of ‘the right to withdraw’. Several of his participants requested withdrawal numerous times, but he discouraged this and almost forced them to carry on.

Zimbardo’s experiment has since gone on to become world famous in providing us with the true facts about this kind of situation. In that respect, the ends have completely justified the means in all the knowlegde we now hold about conformity and social roles. The implications have had enormous effects on the psychological understanding of the Nazi’s during WW2 and can even be somewhat applied to nowadays attrocities, such as the Abu Ghraib prison. The participant’s of Zimbardo’s study in their debrief all stated that although rough, not many wish that they hadn’t taken part, realising the such influential effect the experiment was going to have in psychology.

In conclusion, Zimbardo’s prison experiment was extremely controversial within the ethical boundaries, but I would say that the ends justified the means.


About psycho4stats

I am a 2nd year Bangor University psychology student, and as part of my degree course I have to blog every week about the exciting subject of statistics! I hope you learn something & feel free to comment to your heart's content :)

5 responses to “Zimbardo’s prison experiment: do the ends justify the means of the ethical implications?

  1. kfh1991

    I agree that although he definitely pushed the boundaries of ethics during this experiment, especially as some participants were severely harmed, we can’t besmirch Zimbardo for what he did. He was granted ethical approval before the study, and although he didn’t make it easy for participants to withdraw, he stopped the entire study after 6 days rather than continuing for the planned 2 weeks anyway. (

    Although he would never get away with doing a study like this now, it was actually carried out in the early 70s. And when you think of some of the other famous experiments from the 60s/70s, Milgram’s obedience experiment, Harlow’s rhesus monkeys experiments, etc, Zimbardo was definitely not the only one pushing ethical boundaries.

  2. aglinskas

    Beautiful blog; I highly respect the stance you both are taking on this (the author and the commenter above me). There’s very little I can contribute to this intelligent summary of ethics behind SPE. I do think that evaluating Zimbardo and colleagues’ experiment using reversed ethical guidelines (look for the unethical) is kind of ad-hoc from Zimbardo’s point of view. They approached the issue with participants in mind then, and if the experiment would have been presented today instead of then, I’d like to think we’d make the same decision about its ethics. I suspect a hindsight bias here at work. Tricky decisions are being made all the time in all the fields. A high profile hypothetical example would be If LHC collider fails with horrible consequences the future generations will call the experiment a mistake and us fools or barbarians for letting such dangerous machine to be built. tl;dr Dangerous is not equal unethical.

    Sorry for the rushed comment and incoherent example, I’m in a hurry and it seems to make sense in my head. how lhc might explode.

  3. dnf24

    I agree with kfh1991, in that he definitely pushed the ethical boundaries with this experiment. The participants did not know the exact details of the experiment they were getting into and some might not have agreed if they did know the exact details. Although this is not the ideal terms when carrying out an experiment, the results out weighed the conditions they stretched or broke when carrying it out, by far. It is a pity that ethics have become so strict when looking out for the participant’s state after the experiment that sometimes it is impossible to carry out experiments that show us such amazing results.

  4. stefftevs

    Found your blog very interesting. I do agree with a lot of what your saying. However the experiment was in no doubt extremely unethical and many people would say that the psychological trauma the participants experienced didn’t justify the findings. The benefits of all research should defiantly outweigh the costs with out breaching any ethical principles.
    Harlow (1960) used monkeys in his experiment to discover the detachment theory. This experiment is still seen as one of the most unethical experiments in psychology. Down to the simple fact that the monkeys suffered from extreme psychological damage and become ‘psychotic’. These monkeys were no longer able to socialize with any other monkeys and were psychologically unsalvageable. Where Zimbardo’s participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment were seen to recovered fully.
    However some psychologist still believe that because Harlow’s findings on the detachment theory was so ground breaking and influential that the benefits from the research outweighed the costs.

  5. Pingback: Comments for T.A….. Wendy | stefftevs

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