Over the course of the semester, many interesting studies and experiments were explored. One study that I found particularly interesting that wasn’t explicitly explored in the course was The Stanford Prison Experiment. For the purpose of this paper, I want to explore why The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted, how it was conducted, and what insights it provided to the understanding of human attributions. Conducted by Phillip Zimbardo and his team in 1971, The Stanford Prison Experiment was constructed to identify whether the brutality of prison guards was due to the guards that held those positions or if the environment created the abusiveness of prison guards (McLeod). The essence of the experiment was to expand the understanding between dispositional and situational attributes as they relate to human behavior. The American Psychological Association explains that in psychology dispositional factors are often overestimated while situational factors are underestimated. Zimbardo wanted to explore this further and worked to test this hypothesis (American Psychological Association). With the purpose in mind and the hypothesis explored I then worked to discover the specifics on how the experiments were set up and how the experiment tested the hypothesis.
According to the official website of the prison experiment, a local add ran in the newspaper requesting college-age students offering pay to participate. Seventy applications were received by researchers. 24 applicants were selected by the researchers. Out of the 24 students two teams of twelve were randomly created. One group were assigned to be guards and the other group was designated as inmates. The research team created an artificial prison environment in the basement of the Stanford Psychological Department. With the help of former inmates and other professional’s researchers instructed the subjects how to create realistic prison conditions. The focus was on replicating the dehumanizing practices that are routinely conducted in the prison environment. (The Story: An Overview of the Experiment). After researching the setup, I became increasingly more interested in how these college students reacted to these types of conditions. Most notably I discovered that the study was cut short due to multiple violations of the agreed upon rules set forth before the experiment. Ultimately the researchers feared they wouldn’t be able to maintain control of the safety of the subjects and shut the project down early. The intentions were that the role-playing researchers would help shape the actions of the prison guards while observing how the environment impacted their aggression. What the researchers didn’t expect was that both teams would start to truly believe in the roles they were playing. Guards would often act in aggressive behavior above and beyond what their tasks required of them.
The dehumanization nature of the activities conducted on the inmates was effective in empowering the aggressiveness of the guards. Inmates attempted to pool together to assist one another but over time they became passive as the guard’s aggression increased. Even when ordered to conduct no dehumanizing tasks the guards took it upon themselves to add cruelty to their tasks. Researchers concluded that the prison conditions create an environment for aggression and is a primary factor for prison guard cruelty (Konnikova). After understanding the results of the study, I wanted to take a step back and see the wider impact it had on the psychological community. The experiment very tangibly showed that environmental factors can have a much larger impact on behaviors than what was understood. Even today the debate of nature versus nurture is ongoing. This research helped support the idea that nurture is the primary driver behind actions. Despite the seemingly conclusive results from the experiment, many psychology professionals offered scrutiny to the study. The main concern was the fact that the researchers were proponents of prison reform. Zimmerman testified to Congress in favor of prison reform and through his speech, his words show clear evidence that the experiment supported many of his own personal biases. In any scientific study, it’s important to only test one variable at a time. Although this is extremely difficult in the field of psychology, Zimmerman design of the experiment broke many standard rules of the scientific process. The biggest flaw was that many argue is that random selection was not properly used. Only having students that are looking for money and read the newspaper may skew the results. Perhaps those that are desperate for quick money are naturally prone to quick decisions and aggression. This would add another variable to the test which by its design could not isolate. Most notable was the selection process.
The researchers hand selected out of their pool of applications. Even Zimmerman stated that the test subjects were the best of the best for the experimentation. Without double-blind experimentation standards incorporated into the experiment in some way, there is always room for biases to influence results. Although the psychological community was influenced by the results it’s my opinion that the most important aspect of this case was from the ethical questions this study raised that branched out farther than the field of psychology. This experiment caused emotional and physical harm to their test subjects. With ethics in questions, the experiment could not be replicated, and no cross studies would be conducted to verify the results. This study helped professional organizations from all disciplines to become closer together and develop stronger ethical guidelines in experimentation. Today it still remains a gray area in research and we still can’t answer what cost is acceptable for the acquisition of knowledge. The Stanford Prison experiment pushed the limit of what is ethical in experimentation and through this as a culture and society, it made us ask difficult questions about what roles ethics play in experimentation (Konnikova). It’s my opinion that due to this experiment and the national dialogue it created our experiments today are more ethical and organizations of professionals conduct research in a more safe way than if the question of ethics wasn’t raised in the late 70’s by this experiment and others. From the knowledge I’ve learned from this course, I believe that the results of this experiment cannot definitively justify prison reform or answer the question of nature versus nurture. My new understanding of the importance of double-blind procedures, cross studies, and the scientific process has allowed me to review this study in a more academically rigors way than I would have before.
Reviewing those sections from our textbook helped me better understand this study from multiple viewpoints. Although this study did provide some insights into human attribution I believe the experiment taught us more about ethics and the role researchers have within ethical guidelines than any psychological concept that surfaced. It also helped me realized that despite how noble our intentions are it’s very easy to be influenced by our own personal biases and even then, it may not be possible to completely eliminate them from experimentation.