Ethics and Zimbardo
An important aspect of any psychological study is to assess how it will affect the subjects’ well-being. These considerations are referred to as ethics; and the British Psychological Society has strict guidelines to follow when designing your study and considering its ethical implications. In more recent decades, ethics have been much more widely measured as a result of human rights laws becoming more and more prevalent. In social psychology, it is generally more difficult to uphold ethical considerations because it sometimes detracts from the natural reaction required to ensure the study is as close to real life as possible. However, in 1973, a study was conducted by a team of psychologists; led by Philip Zimbardo. The study became infamous for its lack of ethics and is regularly used as a warning for why ethics are so important.
The study itself was a prison simulation, designed to assess “how much of our behaviour is structured by the social roles that we occupy.” (Banyard & Grayson, 2000, p 21) The study was interested in exploring the idea of ‘labels’ and the automatic associations that are made as a result: do we act differently if under an altered guise? The study featured twenty-four subjects who had all responded to an advert in a newspaper, asking for male volunteers for participation in a prison simulation. The ‘prison’ consisted of three cells, each six feet by nine feet, and a ‘solitary confinement’ room which was actually a broom cupboard. There were also rooms for guards, interviews and the ‘warden’ who was played by Zimbardo. The subjects were designated as either ‘prisoner’ or ‘guard’ and they signed a contract in agreement to their label. The contracts discussed pay and basic living requirements and also made it clear to the prisoners that “some basic civil rights would be suspended.” (Banyard & Grayson, 2000, p 21)
The real ethical issues began once the study was under way. Both the guards and the prisoners were given a uniform to wear: the guards wore standard khaki shirts and trousers with a whistle, sunglasses and a baton, whilst the prisoners were subjected to wearing a smock with a number on the back and the front, no underwear, a chain and lock around their ankle, rubber sandals and a cap made from nylon stockings. (Banyard & Grayson, 2000, p 22) These uniforms instantly cause an issue: the guards carrying a baton may have seem threatening to the prisoners and may have caused them to not feel safe, as well as khaki being associated with the military and the aggression therein; whilst the prisoners were made to wear humiliating outfits which would have only further induced the feeling of vulnerability and threat, particularly the lack of underwear. Three prisoners were placed in each cell, meaning that they had very little personal space. They were in there with two other men who they didn’t know and could have been dangerous and thusly would have made them feel nervous and unhappy. The prisoners were also not allowed to leave and have to remain in the prison twenty-four hours a day. Whilst the subjects would have agreed to this and would, therefore, forfeit their rights to some extent, they should have been entitled to go home at the end of each day as a courtesy. The behaviour of the guards became increasingly aggressive throughout the study and as a result, theirs’ and the prisoners’ moods became more negative. At one point, the guards hid a prisoner in the broom cupboard “because the experimenters were being ‘too soft.’” (Banyard & Grayson, 2000, p 23)
A major event which was definitely unethical was when Zimbardo enlisted the local police department to “unexpectedly ‘arrest’ the prisoner subjects.” (Banyard & Grayson, 2000, p 21) They were charged with suspicion of burglary or armed robbery, they were told their rights, handcuffed, searched and then driven to the police station. Upon arrival, they had their fingerprints and picture taken and put into a detention cell. Following this, they were blindfolded and taken back to the mock prison. Once there, they were stripped, deloused, “made to stand naked in the ‘yard’” (Banyard & Grayson, 2000, p 23) and finally given their uniforms back, put in their cell and told to stay silent. Throughout the whole ordeal, the prisoners were not told that it was part of the study. Presumably, this was designed to reinforce the ‘prisoner’ stereotype and induce an enhanced state of prisoner-like behaviour. However, this is unethical for countless reasons: the prisoners were not told about this prior to the study or during and therefore, subjects were no proper debriefed meaning they were never able to give their full and knowing consent; they would have been scared and potentially confused as they were supposedly in a simulated prison but then it became real; they were treated like real prisoners although, even real prisoners would not be allowed to be treated in such a way meaning that their civil rights were dramatically infringed, as were their human rights. Following this deception, the prisoners were no longer referred to by name, but rather by a number: this is a total loss of personal identity and arguably, takes the simulation too far. This would have caused a significant amount of distress and psychological damage as a result: the results showed that the guards and the prisoners began to internalise the prison which meant that they began to believe it was real.
It is clear, from this study alone, that the British Psychological Society’s guidelines and indeed, ethics generally, are a massively important aspect of any study. They preserve the dignity, safety, health and general well-being of the subjects whilst ensuring that the study is legal and does not infringe on any civil or human rights.
1. British Psychological Societ. (1998). Code of Conduct, Ethical Principles and Guidelines. Great Britain: British Psychological Society.
2. Montier, J. (2007). Behavioural Investing: a practitioner’s guide to applying behavioural finance. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
3. Zimbardo, P. et al. (1973). The Prison Simulation. In Banyard, P & Grayson, A. (Eds.), Introducing Psychological Research. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave.