Ethics in Research: The Stanford Prison Experiment

The issue of ethics in research seems to have expanded importance in literature. In that regard, it can be questioned what are the ethical; considerations that could be applied for cases implying researches based on anonymous surveys. Nevertheless, when reading about the “The Stanford Prison Experiment”, such ethical concern can be understood.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was an experimental study, where a group of students was put in a simulated prison, with half of the participants playing the role of prisoners, while the other half playing the role of guards. The study was meant to measure how the environment and the setting impose certain behaviors on people, initially uncharacteristic to them. The study was called off after only six days, as prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, while some of the guards were behaving sadistically. (Zimbardo, 2009).

With many details of the research points to that the experiment went off control, and considering the potential value of the research results, this paper examines the ethical consideration that should have been addressed, stating that such considerations should have been a sufficient cause to stop the experiment.

Looking at the Stanford’s case it can be seen that two of the ethical issues in social research were violated, which are deception and the verification that no harm is applied to the participants. It can be seen that in terms of deception, the participants, specifically playing the role of prisoners had no idea on how the research will be conducted and what physical and psychological consequences they might encounter. The informed consent cannot be applied to the participants as the researchers themselves did not understand what the research might lead to. (Baxter & Babbie, 2004).

Additionally, it can be seen that the measured results were influenced by the involvement of the researchers, whereas they admitted they also experienced the effect of presence, and thus their decisions were widely affected. Thus, as soon as the researcher realized that the participants’ protection was violated, the study should have been stopped.

The opposition of the aforementioned opinion might argue that, if all the ethical considerations were considered the prison setting could not have been simulated and thus, the validity of the results they were trying to measure would have been a threat. Additionally, the value of the results might justify the consequences they led to, such as the reformation of the prison system, and the involvement of a control over the violations that might occur. In that regard, serving the humanity can be justified at the expense of several people, who had a tough time for six days.

Refuting such arguments, it can be stated that ethics enter into the consideration of all major fields such as natural sciences, psychology, medical and sociology. Many options could have been available to the researcher, in order to address such ethical issues prior to conducting the research as well as during the experiment. One of such options can be seen by allowing Institutional Review Boards to review the study proposal so that the rights and the interests of the participants are protected. (Baxter & Babbie, 2004).

It can be concluded that the importance of ethical considerations in a research study cannot be overrated. There should be always a line between what should and what should not be done, and in that regard, ethical conduct should establish such lines and boundaries. In terms of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the violation of such ethical conduct should have forced the researchers to stop the experiment as soon as the violations occurred.


Baxter, L. A., & Babbie, E. R. (2004). The Ethics of Communication Research The basics of communication research. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2009). The Stanford Prison Experiment. Stanford Prison Experiment. Web. 

Find out your order's cost