In 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment in the basement of Stanford University. The purpose was to discover the psychological effects of power by focusing on the relationship between prison guards and prisoners. 75 applicants were given interviews and personality tests to determine if they were fit to participate. Eventually, 21 college boys passed the tests and then were randomly selected to be a prisoner or a prison guard. Prisoners were to identify as the number they were given, which forced them to lose their sense of individuality. So, the experiment took off and the guards quickly began embracing authoritarian measures, subjecting prisoners to psychological torture. What was supposed to be a two week long experiment, ended up lasting only six days instead due to the guards’ abuse. Today, there are laws that stop psychologists from mentally tormenting someone, something that didn’t exactly exist over 50 years ago. Suddenly, because of these laws, Zimbardo’s experiment raises concerns and the question, was this experiment unethical? The effects it had and the events that occured within the walls of Stanford suggest that this experiment was certainly unethical.
There were quite a few violations that interrupted the experiment. For example, Zimbardo didn’t take the necessary time to do more research on what events may or may not occur in the mock prison. One of Zimbardo’s old roommates paid a visit to the prison and had asked what the independent variable of the experiment was. Zimbardo didn’t have an answer for him but, later found out how important that variable could have been. Instead, he made a role playing scenario with no other prison that had different conditions to measure his testing results against (The Medium). Before the experiment had begun, the prisoner’s signed a consent form that confirmed there would be no physical harm done to them. However, guards later began hitting their prisoners which should have terminated the experiment all together but, it kept going. One of the only few rules given to the guards was that there would be no hitting but, the untrained men abused this power, yet, nothing was done to stop them. It was obvious that the prison guards were unprepared for their roles and took advantage of the duties presented to them.
Furthermore, it wasn’t just physical abuse, there was evidence of mental and psychological effects too. Many prisoners experienced long term traumas brought on by fear and events that occurred in the prison. For instance, prisoner #8612 “began suffering from acute emotional disturbance, disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying, and rage” (simplypsychology). The prisoner then had a meeting with the guards but, they referred to him as very weak. When he returned to his cell, he told the other prisoners that “you can’t leave. You can’t quit”. A line had been crossed here and it was obvious, #8612 had to be let out. These 11 prisoners were not protected from emotional harm rather, they were humiliated and went through phases of uncontrollable screaming and crying.
The experiment ended abruptly on the sixth day after Dr. Christina Maslach visited and became horrified at the events, which brought Zimbardo back to reality. The prisoners went home and visited therapists to help with their disorders that came to life from this experiment. The guards became discouraged that their time of abusing people with no consequences came to an end. Zimbardo’s prison experiment was unethical due to poor debriefings of the prisoners and lack of protection for all.