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Informed Consent and the Stanford Prison Experiment

Informed Consent and the Stanford Prison Experiment

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will explore research ethics through examination of informed consent and the Zimbardo Stanford County Prison experiment. Also discusses the importance of the Institutional Review Board in contemporary sociological research studies.

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Informed Consent and the Stanford Prison Experiments

Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, and welcome to sociological studies. As always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. The topic of today's lesson is the Stanford County Prison Experiment, and Informed Consent.

Well, the Stanford County prison experiments were conducted by a psychologist at Stanford in the 1970s. Philip Zimbardo was his name. Zimbardo was interested in whether or not the people who went to prison were inherently bad, misbehaving, deviant people, aggressive people filled with rage, whether they were inherently like that or whether the prison institution promoted these kind of behaviors amongst inmates and amongst guards. Did just the fact of being in the physical space of prison make guards more sadistic, make them more aggressive? Did it make prisoners deviant and did it make them misbehave?

So Philip Zimbardo was really asking then a question about the institution of prison. So what Zimbardo did to test this then was he got a group of 24 clinically sane young men to take part in his prison experiment. He assigned 12 of them in the guard group and the other 12 in the prisoner group. So now people obviously knew they were taking part in this study. But the prisoners didn't know when they were going to be taken to prison.

So Zimbardo surprised them, arrested them. It was very official. He tried to make it as realistic as possible, arrested them, took them to the prison, stripped them, gave them uniforms, numbers, things like that. The guards had whistles, and they had uniforms themselves. So he really liked went to great lengths to make this as realistic as possible.

And this experiment was supposed to last two weeks. As soon as he got the prisoners in and the guards set up, he set cameras rolling and just watched what was going to happen. It was supposed to take two weeks. But it got so ugly that Zimbardo was forced to cut the experiment short after only six days.

Quickly, as soon as prisoners got in there, guards became sadistic and hostile, making them do like really demeaning, effacing things like clean the toilets with their bare hands, things like that. And in response to their new situation, prisoners became sad, depressed. Some cried. Some became angry and hostile at the guards.

So these are normal clinically sane people on both ends, but then thrown into this situation, they started to act this way. And these were Zimbardo's key findings, that it wasn't necessarily that people were inherently bad, sadistic, depressed, things like that, but that this institution promotes these behaviors among people. So prison violence then is symptomatic of the institution of prison itself rather than of the inherent personalities of either guards or prisoners.

Why we bring this up today, though, in this tutorial and why we talk about the Stanford County prison experiment in general is because it illustrates what you're not supposed to do when experimenting with human subjects. It violates what we call informed consent, where informed consent is, when you're doing research with human subjects, everyone must be notified in advance of all the responsibilities and the potential risks and dangers of the study. You can't do as Zimbardo did and just go pull people out of their homes without them knowing when they're going to-- when this is going to happen. You can't just go pull them out, put them in a mock prison, and deprive them of the basic things. So we bring this up then to illustrate the importance of informed consent when conducting sociological research, and all social science research for that matter, any time you're involving human subjects.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the brief introduction to the Stanford County prison experiment and how it illustrates what you're not supposed to do with respect to informed consent when conducting social research. Thank you for joining me and have a great rest of your day.

  • Stanford Prison Experiment

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

  • 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.