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Informed Consent and the Stanford Prison Experiment

Informed Consent and the Stanford Prison Experiment

Author: Paul Hannan

Identify the findings the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the experiment's lasting impacts on research.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on informed consent AND the Stanford prison experiment. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.

So today, we're looking at the Stanford prison experiment. This is a very, very famous experiment from Philip Zimbardo. Now I promise you won't have to look at everything with bars there. But it's nice, at least for a moment, think about our perception of prisons and jails and what culture is like there because that's what Philip Zimbardo was interested when he conducted his experiment. So let's explain the experiment.

Now the Stanford County Prison experiment was done by Philip Zimbardo. He's a very, very famous psychologist. But his work is often used in sociology as well.

Now Zimbardo was looking at what happened in prisons and the violent behavior in there. And he didn't believe that it was simply the cause of the prisoners. He thought there was something about that structure that was causing them to act in this way. So he created this experiment to try to figure that out and test that hypothesis that it's not the individuals in jail. Instead, it's something about the structure of the jail.

So what he did is-- and he was, at the time, working at Stanford University. He found 24 different students to act as either guards or prisoners for a two-week experiment. And for these two weeks, they would stay in character the whole time. And they would be randomly assigned to either be guards or prisoners.

So now the experiment actually started by the prisoners being arrested at their homes by the guards. So it really tried to set a realistic start to the experiment. And then they were taken into a basement to actually conduct the experiment.

Now right away, there were some interesting things going on. The guards acted in what you would say were very stereotypical guard ways. They were demeaning to these students. They humiliated them.

Now these guards are the exact same people, for all intents and purposes, as the prisoners. And they knew that going into this study, that the guards and the prisoners, they were both just average students at Stanford University. So what happened, though, is after only six days, the experiment had to be called off.

Five prisoners had already been forced to leave because of extreme emotional depression. They were crying uncontrollably. They were fearful of the effect on these individuals.

And the treatment by the guards was really extreme. There's stories of them forcing the prisoners to wear bags over their heads. And it got so bad the prisoners actually rebelled, and they organized a hunger strike. And Zimbardo and his fellow researchers, at that stage, had to call it off. It became unsafe for both the guards and the prisoners.

So what is the lasting effects of that study? Well, there are a couple different parts to that. The first one doesn't maybe seem as important right away, but it really highlights the importance of informed consent.

Now informed consent is where subjects sign a form that says that they understand the responsibilities and risks involved in this research. Now every single participant in this study did sign an informed consent form. Now what they signed, though, was not what actually happened.

They didn't know how risky this was going to be. And so none of them signed up for possible long-lasting emotional effects. And that's one thing that's really clear about when you're conducting research. You need to be careful that the research you're conducting is not going to cause harm to the subjects.

Now another thing it did is it really changed the way that research was done on prisons. After this experiment was done, a whole bunch of money got poured into looking at the penal system and what about that structure is causing some of the violent behaviors that is seen in prisons. Now there's a lot of really interesting stuff about the Stanford prison experiment. And in fact, if you on YouTube, you can find actual footage of the experiment being conducted.

But the experiment happened in 1972. And the Stanford magazine had a really interesting article called The Menace Within commemorating the 40 year anniversary. And these tutorials really isn't a great spot to go in such detail about the actual experiment. But if this is something that's interesting to you, if you just look up the Stanford magazine, The Menace Within, it's a free publication online. You should be able to find a version there. It really helps explain the experiment in the context of how it worked 40 years ago and where those people are now and what the guards feel like after 40 years later after dealing with being guards and acting that way.

So the takeaway message, Philip Zimbardo's Stanford County Prison experiment was an experiment to study the effects of jails on people. And it used informed consent to make sure the subject understood their responsibilities and the risks involved in their research. But they still ended up having to shut down because not safe for the participants.

That's it for this lesson. Good work. And hopefully, you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Terms to Know
Informed Consent

When doing research that involves human subjects, everyone must be notified in advance of all the responsibilities, risks, and dangers that are potentially associated with the study.

Stanford Prison Experiment

Famous experiment that revealed how the prison structure effects social behavior and shed light on the ethical concerns of social research.