The Stanford Prison Experiment” by Philip G
The Stanford Prison Experiment” by Philip G. Zimbardo was written to explain the results of the Stanford prison experiment. Zimbardo while trying to gain support for his conclusions of the experiment, demonstrated many errors in his writing, and in his own experiment. The errors that Zimbardo commits call into question the validity of his argument, and the experiment. The goal explained by Zimbardo was “to understand more about the process by such people called “prisoners” lose their liberty, civil rights, independence, and privacy, while those called “guards” gain social power by accepting the responsibility for controlling and managing the lives of their dependent charges” (Zimbardo 733).
Zimbardo starts his paper with a storybook intro “The quiet of a summer morning” he then goes into the process by which the subjects were taken into the prison (732). This is an odd way to start a scientific paper, even if it was published in the New York Journal. He then switches between scientific, and novelistic language. In one sentence Zimbardo compares real prisons to “machines for playing tricks with the human conception of time” how does relating a prison to a machine validate his point? It seems as if Zimbardo is using his language to draw the reader into his paper so that they will sympathize with him.
While Zimbardo was careful to select his prisoners from anyone who had previously been to jail, he did not select a diverse group of subjects; he states that the group consisted of all Caucasians and one Oriental student, and were all of college age. He does not defend why he chose this uniform group of subjects, and it only makes one wonder how the experiment would have carried out if there was a more diverse grouping of both age and race. He also did not collect a diverse subject of social class, all his subjects being from the middle-class (734). The American Psychological Association has since established guidelines for diversity in experiments that are conducted. In the book Research and Evaluation in Education and Psychology Donna Mertens explains the guidelines for diversity as “recognition of the ways in which the intersection of racial and ethnic group membership with other dimensions of identity…enhances the understanding and treatment of all people” (Mertens 313).
Another issue in Zimbardo’s experiment was in the treatment of the prisoners. The guards would curse at the prisoners and force them to ridiculous and arbitrary tasks such as forcing them to pick thorns out of their blankets which the guards had dragged through the bushes (737). Even the prisoners would make detrimental remarks about their fellow prisoners (737). The extreme actions taken by the guards resulted in some prisoners developing anxiety symptoms, one symptom even exhibiting itself in a psychosomatic rash when one prisoner’s parole was rejected by the parole board (738). The American Psychological Association makes it very clear on this type of behavior in their code of ethics they state that “any direct or indirect participation in any act of torture or other forms of cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment or punishment by psychologists is strictly prohibited. There are no exceptions.”
While Zimbardo did see the problem of the treatment of his subjects and called the experiment to be cut short, this only further questions the experiment’s validity. Can he truly draw conclusions from an experiment that was not even fully completed? The behavior over those days could have drastically changed and example of this is in the transcript of a guard who states that some of the guards reacted differently over the experiment being disbanded (741). The different reactions show over the experiment being disbanded shows the change that could have taken place in the hierarchy of power within the prison. The prisoners could have taken power from the guards. This would show how it is possible to overcome the metaphorical prisons that are forced on the mind in life.
Zimbardo deindividualized all his subjects from the uniforms of the guards to the shift his prisoners wore (734). In reviewing the Lucifer Effect containing the Stanford Prison Experiment Arthur J. Lurigio professor of Loyola University Chicago states that “deindividualization is a close companion to dehumanization” (Lurigio 73). If Zimbardo was to conclude from his experiment that the prison was a metaphor for our personal lives, how was it that he was trying to dehumanize the subjects? Race, sexuality, and gender are all person and individual problems that everyone faces, yet the prisoners in his experiment were all uniform (Zimbardo 735). Zimbardo may argue that people are being dehumanized by their personal problems, but each person will act to a problem differently and each person has a different problem, this personalizes a person’s issues making them more human.
So while Zimbardo did receive results from his experiments the underlying problems of the experiment overshadow the outcomes. While the experiment might not have achieved the same results if proper guidelines were followed, was it really ethical to allow his subjects to be treated in such a way. His conclusions and writing methods also take away from his purpose, making the reader question his scientific findings.