Stanford Prison Experiment Analysis

The famous Stanford Prison Experiment was carried out in 1971 by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. He investigated the nature of violence and cruelty that arise as a person’s reaction to the restriction of freedom in the conditions of a social role imposed on an individual. The main complaint about the Zimbardo experiment is a violation of ethics. In the 21st century, ethical requirements for social experiences were not established and formalized. From the present day’s perspective, Zimbardo’s experiment would be impossible to conduct; it would not have been approved by any ethics commission primarily because it initially implies severe psychological pressure on the participants. However, this study received wide publicity and an undeniable place in the history of social psychology.

Researchers invited undergraduate students to act out the roles of guards or convicts to study social psychology in a prison setting. The volunteers had to spend several weeks in prison conditions; the participants’ sample was homogeneous: law-abiding young white men from families with average incomes (Bartels, 2019). The results of preliminary psychological tests did not reveal any mental problems or abusive behavior patterns (Bartels, 2019). In the research process, the relationships between guards and prisoners were characterized by aggressive actions of guards and psychological breakdown among several prisoners (Bartels, 2019). On the sixth day, the guards showed excessive power towards the prisoners, who recorded severe emotional disorders (Bartels, 2019). One of the prisoners had to be released early due to symptoms of psychosis (Bartels, 2019). Thus, the experiment was found to be out of control and required to be aborted.

Despite all the issues that contradict ethics, Zimbardo’s research influenced the formation of social psychology. The discussion of the experiment indicates a violation of several norms of ethics, which led to unethical consequences (Le Texier, 2019). These are incomplete conditions of the investigation in the participants’ contract, infringement of their fundamental rights such as food and hygiene, and violation of the American Psychological Association (APA) Code of Social, Legal, and Privacy Rights (Le Texier, 2019). Zimbardo’s experiment can be regarded as an example of psychological research when the authors ignored the basic principles of a code of ethics.

Recent findings criticize the study, revealing that abusive actions were performed not by guards’ own imagination but were encouraged by instructions from experimenters. Jail keepers received detailed instructions from the researchers the day before the experiment began (Le Texier, 2019). They were asked to make the prisoners feel defenseless, lonely, and fearful; however, it did not concern using psychological or physical violence (Le Texier, 2019). Therefore, the methods to which the guards began to resort during the experiment were attributed to them. Moreover, Zimbardo’s study involved 24 people, which is not enough to achieve statistical significance when deviating from the null hypothesis (Le Texier, 2019). Thus, another limitation is the sample of participants was insufficient for the most reliable methods of statistical hypothesis testing.

To sum up, in terms of scientific advances, The Stanford prison experiment is considered a cornerstone issue of social psychology. It raised and staged such concerns as good and evil, group dominance, and stratification of social roles. Zimbardo used the obtained results as the truth, explaining all the imperfections of human behavior revealed under the influence of changed environmental conditions. It may be incorrect and dangerous to transfer the results of such experiments to real-life situations. Limitations and poor methodology underestimate the value of other well-designed, randomized, and controlled psychological trials. The conclusions obtained can be used to justify behavior motivated by entirely different reasons.


Bartels, J. (2019). Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment, again: Examining demand characteristics in the guard orientation. The Journal of social psychology, 159(6), 780-790. Web.

Le Texier, T. (2019). Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment. American Psychologist, 74(7), 823-839. Web.

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