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Ethical Review – The Stanford Prison ExperimentCOLLAPSE
The Stanford Prison Experiment is a classic case study used in many introductory psychology courses (Bartels, 2015). The controversial nature of the study and the dramatic results have lead many people to question the morality of the methods used, but was this experiment even ethical? Looking at the established set of guidelines published in the Nuremberg Code, it can be argued that this experiment is deficient in several areas of the code. The Nuremberg Code is considered by many to be the “most authoritative legal and human rights code on the subject of human experimentation (Emanuel, 2011, pp 136).” The code outlines ten key elements that must be met to protect the safety and integrity of the human subjects involved in the research. The Stanford Prison Experiment did not satisfy the point in the code that states that, “the experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury (Emanuel, 2011, pp 139).” The investigator, Dr. Zimbardo, instructed the volunteers assigned to be guards to degrade the prisoners and to make them feel powerless. The guards also took away mattresses and stripped the prisoners naked to humiliate and establish their power. Some of the prisoners were so stressed and disturbed by the conditions that the experiment was ended a week early. There was no avoidance of unnecessary mental harm, and worse so, it was even encouraged by the investigator. Another main point of the code that appears to have been violated by this experiment was the point that, “during the course of the experiment the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end (Office of Human Research Protections, (2018)).” While some of the prisoner subjects did choose to exit the study early, several were left in such a state of stress and confusion that they thought they were being held in jail. They internalized the role so much from the torment of the guards that a few days into the experiment, some of the prisoners staged a hungry strike and revolted against the guards (McLeoad, 2017). The prisoner subjects were left feeling that they had no liberty to leave and were even told so by some of the mock guards. This portion of the code was clearly avoided.
The timing of the Stanford Prison Experiment was centered right in the middle of when research ethics standards were being more accepted and publicized. The Declaration of Helsinki, which was originally adopted in 1964, held five original core principles regarding clinical research ethics. Among those principles was the notion for the “need for scientific and moral justification for the research (Emanuel, 2011, pp 142).” While the moral justification was questioned previously, the scientific need is what is controversial. What exactly was the useful medical or therapeutic knowledge gained from this experiment? The 1975 revision of the Declaration also brought to the forefront an emphasis on maximizing benefit while minimizing any risks to the subjects. It is clear from the methods used during this experiment that the risks were not minimized, and as such, another example of the unethical nature of this study.
Continuing with the concept of maximizing benefit while minimizing risk, the moral principle of Beneficence in the Belmont Report is applicable here. The key elements of beneficence in clinical research is to do no harm and maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harm (Office of Human Research Protections, (2018)). In the Stanford Prison Experiment case, the underlying theme of do no harm as it applies to the Belmont Report can be extracted from the Hippocratic Oath that medical professionals undertake during their training. This study did in fact do physical and mental harm to the subjects, thereby violating this oath. The well-being of the research subjects was not secured in this study, and as mentioned previously was even encouraged to be taken away from them. There was no element of beneficence or anything of the like other than the experiment ending early which would give this study any sense of being ethical. The argument that psychology research differs from other types of medical research can only be based on loose grounds. The fact that in any study where human volunteers are being researched should have the same protections in place for the people, not merely test subjects, involved.
Bartels, J. (3/9/2015). The Stanford prison experiment in introductory psychology textbooks: A content analysis. Sage Journals. Retrieved from
Emanuel, E.J., Grady, C., Crouch, R.A., Reidar, K.L., Miller, F.G. & Wendler, D. (2011). The Oxford Textbook of Clinical Research Ethics. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
McLeod, J. (2017). Stanford Prison Experiment. Retrieved from
Office of Human Research Protections, (2018). Nuremberg Code: Directives for Human Experimentation. Retrieved from
Office of Human Research Protections. (2018, January 15). The Belmont Report. Retrieved from