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Stanford Prison Experiment

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Background: "The Stanford prison experiment was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment was conducted from Aug. 14 - 20, 1971 by a team of researchers led by Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University. Twenty-four students were selected out of 75 to play the prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Roles were assigned randomly. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond what even Zimbardo himself expected, leading the "Officers" to display authoritarian measures and ultimately to subject some of the prisoners to torture. In turn, many of the prisoners developed passive attitudes and accepted physical abuse, and, at the request of the guards, readily inflicted punishment on other prisoners who attempted to stop it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his capacity as "Prison Superintendent," lost sight of his role as psychologist and permitted the abuse to continue as though it were a real prison. Five of the prisoners were upset enough by the process to quit the experiment early, and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days. The experimental process and the results remain controversial. The entire experiment was filmed, with excerpts soon made publicly available." -Wikipedia

What are the ethical implications surrounding Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE)?

The only notable use of deception is the "surprise arrests" as a matter of initiation of the experiment.

With that being stated, what is the role of consent in determining ethical standards? In light of this experiment, informed consent was given to all participants, including deep debriefing sessions regarding the potential emotional trauma induced if they choose to agree to participate.

Generally, is the initiation of force morally acceptable if consent is given by an individual who fully knows and understands its consequences?

Thank you for your time.

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Consent and force are mutually exclusive. To be forced is to be forced against one's will, against one's voluntary consent. As with sex, for example, just because one consents to engage in sex, one always has the right to say no.

In Dr. Peikoff's podcast, Episode 15, he is asked the following question. His reply may be of some help.

13:06 "'To what extent can an individual voluntarily relinquish his rights? For example, could someone sell himself into slavery, or consent to be physically beaten?'"

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The Stanford Prison Experiment shows is that many people are cowards, that people often don't stand up for what they believe is right, etc. Not all people are susceptible to the influence of the behavior of the people around them, and these are the people of a more upstanding character than those who fall into depravity at the first excuse. The way to guard against such behavior is merely to develop a good character, and have your ethical principles understood fully and explicitly.

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Actually, I've done some research into the Standford expiriments. There's more than a few papers out there discussing the wild flaws in Zimbardo's methodology which undermines his conclsuions about human nature. For one, he deliberately cultivated an culture of fear and aggression, personally riling up the guards and driving them to great and greater depravity. Also, its been shown that even the way he looked for volunteers attracted people who were already of an aggressive and domineering bent. When you stick a bunch of borderline sociopaths in a room, wind them up, and tell them to go hog-wild, it shouldn't surprise anyone that this happened.

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Very interesting Nyronus, is there an article I could read on that?

I'm not surprised with the results, I'm strictly concerned with the ethical implications of his experiment. At what point (if any) did his experiment become unethical?

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Very interesting Nyronus, is there an article I could read on that?

I'm not surprised with the results, I'm strictly concerned with the ethical implications of his experiment. At what point (if any) did his experiment become unethical?

I wish I still had the Journal articles on hand. If you can access EbscoHost, search under the "Banality of Evil" in psychology journals, you should find an article dealing with holes in Milgram and Zambardi's methodology. There is also another one dealing with ethics but specifically on Milgram, essentially arguing that the implied threat of the experiment's design muddled the results. Search for "Milgram Better Ethics"for that one.

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I'm not surprised with the results, I'm strictly concerned with the ethical implications of his experiment. At what point (if any) did his experiment become unethical?

The experiment was unethical from the very beginning because Zombardo also gave himself a role as "superintendent", preventing him from being an unbiased observer. He allowed the prisioners to think they were not allowed to leave and the experiment caused lasting psychological harm (although Zombardo denies this). Both of these break psychology's ethical guidelines for dealing with human subjects.

This is a short clip of an interview where they brought one of the prisioners and one of the guards together after the experiment had ended. Notice the body language of the two. I would definitely call that lasting psychological harm.

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I don't care what the populous or even Zimbardo himself say about the ethical nature of the experiment, though I've seen the video before and understand both sides.

I'm asking: from a strictly O'ist perspective, at what point does ("lasting") psychological harm equate to physical force, if ever? At what point does deception equate to physical force? I have a hard time understanding the concept of psychological trauma as something an individual cannot overcome himself.

I've been told before that "threat of force" IS "initiation of force". However, Zimbardo himself did not initiate force (despite taking on the role of warden). Did Zimbardo have a moral obligation to stop his experiments when he saw they were getting out of hand (mind you, he did just that after 6 days; the experiment was planned for 2 weeks)? Is it not a fair exchange of values? Participants WERE paid $15 per day and DID have extensive debriefing.

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@CapitalistSwine: at least with adults who have presumably fully-developed, adult brains -- say, the prisoners (college students at Stanford) in the experiment:

(1) they KNEW what they were getting into. They COULD decide to ignore completely the verbal attacks and resist the verbal commands (prisoners were TOLD to do push-ups and sit-ups). Some prisoners locked themselves in their cells and refused to acquiesce the guards commands. The moment they decided to take seriously their threats was the same moment that they could possibly develop emotional trauma. In essence, the fact that they had a CHOICE to begin with negates the absolute possibility of developing psychological trauma when exposed to it.

(2) With regard to those whom did not choose to ignore commands, they understood the consequences and STILL maintained (and were informed of) a CHOICE to leave at anytime they felt stressed or harmed in any way. By no means was this truly a prison. In fact, Prisoner 8612 told researchers he "faked" psychological trauma and was released in 36 hours (Source). Moreover, none of the prisoners have trauma today.

Perhaps I am not versed in understanding emotions, and am as a result more stoic than many of my peers, but I feel as if individuals can, essentially, 'regulate' their own emotions. For example, I feel you can continue telling yourself "I am happy, I am happy, I am happy..." until you ARE genuinely happy, or at the very least are no longer sad. In the case of this experiment, no physical harm was done to anybody and the choice ALWAYS remained present, beyond the 'surprise arrests' at the beginning.

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Even more interesting the question to what degree one may submit himself to the authority and to become complete second hander. In the Milgram experiment one group of students applied torture in the form of electrical shocks to the group of volunteers according to the instructions of the teacher.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/psychology/milgram_obedience_experiment.html

They didn't know that they applied fake shocks and continued the torture in spite fake cries of their "victims". Following instructions the majority of participants increased the power of shock to the fatal level-simply because the moderator told them to do so. I think that this experiment tells a lot why our society looks as it is.

Edited by Leonid

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@Leonid - that is Stanley Milgrim's experiment. Nyronus brought up the potential for a flawed experiment design in both of these experiments, which I have yet to think about. I'm mostly concerned with the experiments as they were run, if they were ethical or not. In the case of Milgrim's, the man with the electric dial had a CHOICE, and no physical force was exerted. This is the foundation for my question: "I'm asking: from a strictly O'ist perspective, at what point does psychological harm equate to physical force, if ever? At what point does deception equate to fraud?"

Edited by dmastt

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dmastt "In the case of Milgrim's, the man with the electric dial had a CHOICE, and no physical force was exerted."

This is exactly the point. The man with the dial became second hander. He completely submitted himself to the authority, without any coercion. He simply assumed that the teacher (and society, priest, parents, party, government etc...) knows better and his only role is to obey without any questions. One doesn't question authorities, especially if authorities present some highest usually altruistic goal-in this case the progress of science. Since the morality of altruism and sacrifice is the dominant moral philosophy of our time and age, the man with the dial, which could be any government bureaucrat, is always ready to sacrifice others and himself. From the Objectivist point of view, no psychological pressure equates to physical force or threat to use it.

Edited by Leonid

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"I'm asking: from a strictly O'ist perspective, at what point does psychological harm equate to physical force, if ever? At what point does deception equate to fraud?"

When you ask, "at what point does psychological harm equate to physical force, if ever?," you mean "initiated physical force"? You are asking at what point does psychological harm equate to the initiation of physical force and therefore a violation of rights? Correct?

Not all harm (physical or psychological) caused by physical force indicates that someone's rights have been violated. One cannot logically say that once a certain amount of physical (or psychological) harm has been done a violation of rights has occurred.

To clarify my point, let's leave aside psychological harm (I think the issue will be more clear) and change your question to, at what point does physical harm equate to the initiation of physical force?

The question, if the point is to identify the bright line at which individual rights are violated, is the wrong question. Harm is not the issue, the initiation of the use of force is the issue, the bright line that indicates the violation of rights. An individual may suffer harm in his dealings with others whether or not his rights have been violated.

One boxer's blows may cause brain damage to his opponent, yet with no violation of rights. A man may walk into a bank, tell a teller that he has a gun and that he wants the money in the drawer, never show his gun (or even perhaps not actually have one), change his mind at the last moment and run out of the bank without actually taking any money. He has still violated the teller's (as well as others') rights. The boxer did not initiate the use of force even though the two were engaged in physical force against each other and causing various degrees of harm to each other; the fickle robber has initiated the use of force even if he did not actually have a gun and did not actually harm anyone in the bank.

Edited by Trebor

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I'm mostly concerned with the experiments as they were run, if they were ethical or not. In the case of Milgrim's, the man with the electric dial had a CHOICE, and no physical force was exerted. This is the foundation for my question: "I'm asking: from a strictly O'ist perspective, at what point does psychological harm equate to physical force, if ever? At what point does deception equate to fraud?"

Well you should also recall that ethics extends far beyond violating rights or not. Agreeing to engage in an experiment which you know could give you psychological harm, for no good reason no less, indicates a deep lack of concern over one's own psychological well-being. This attitude is very bad for the individual in question and is therefore unethical. As far as the person running the experiments is concern, inflicting psychological harm on others is itself psychologically unhealthy, and therefore unethical as well. I don't have any particular insight as to whether or not these experiments constituted a violation of rights, but I do want to call attention to the fact that participating in something like this represents a failure of the participant to value his own mental well-being, and therefore by Objectivist standards is highly immoral.

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I'm asking: from a strictly O'ist perspective, at what point does ("lasting") psychological harm equate to physical force, if ever?

Only when physical force or the threat of physical force is used to facilitate inflicting that harm, of course. Physical force is not a highly abstract concept, it's pretty obvious what it is.

In this case, from what I read about the experiment, the mock prisoners were not free to simply leave. Either actual force (locked doors) or the threat of force was used to keep them there. Why else would one of them have to "seriously freak out" for instance, before Zimbardo was convinced that he should be allowed to leave? Whether someone is "allowed to leave" should never have been in any doubt in anyone's mind. Especially not the mock prisoners'. Convincing someone that they're an actual prisoner is clearly the threat of force. That's what the word "prisoner" means: kept some place through force.

Mind you, the fact that they agreed to the experiment is irrelevant. In a civilized society, the use of physical force in almost all cases, except immediate self defense, is the exclusive purview of the government. Individuals may not use physical force to enforce a contract. I believe the contract itself was perfectly valid, however its enforcement, just like with all valid contracts, can only be done through the legal system.

---------------------

In conclusion, Zimbardo had every right to perform this experiment, offer volunteers contracts that would require them to go through with the experiments described in the contracts, at the cost of severe financial penalties (penalties which he would have had every right to collect through the Court system), but he did not have the right to threaten physical force to enforce his contract, implicitly or explicitly. In a civilized society, no employer may use physical force against his employees, not even if it's only to make them perform the work they agreed to. The employer's only means of holding employees to their word is the threat of firing, or of lawsuits as per their contract.

So the legal and rights respecting way to organize this circus would've been to make it clear to the "prisoners" that they were free to go at any point they so desired, simply by stating that fact. Even during the infamous Hell Week training course for some of the US military's special forces, recruits may opt out of the course at any time by simply walking up to a bell and ringing it.

I guess both the prior written description of what the experiment would be like, and making clear that everyone's free to leave at any time, would've made the experiment pointless, but that's not special license to abuse people.

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@Dante, I understand that, but the difference now becomes one of morals and ethics, wherein it was immoral for Zimbardo to neglect his self-interests and become emotionally engulfed by the nature of the experiment, but it may still be an ethical experiment. Or am I mistaken?

@Tanka, all they had to do was say "I want to leave" and then Zimbardo would come and ask "Are you sure?" and if they said yes they could leave freely. When did Zimbardo use the threat of force to uphold his contract? The prisoners were made aware that they could leave, yet they choose, on their own token, to believe that they couldn't leave. They held false premises on whether or not they could leave. They were not rationally thinking. The fact was only doubted because of themselves.

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I have a hard time understanding the concept of psychological trauma as something an individual cannot overcome himself.

The way it generally happens is that a power differential exists or develops in a relationship(parent-child,husband-wife,etc)and this difference in strength, whether through intellectual advantage, emotional manipulation, or physical abuse, is used to alter the perception of reality on the part of the "weaker" party. So even an adult with a well defined set of proper principles can become hard pressed to continue with regard to them if the effects are not as expected.

Take honesty. If every time you speak the truth you are beaten severely or a baby explodes or whatever, your willingness to tell the truth will taper. The consequence doesn't need to be true even....just your perception of it. All virtues and proper acts, we have to validate with our own first hand experience, so when it isn't validated consistently or at all, it becomes impossible to believe and therefore impossible to uphold.

In an extreme enough situation, especially one maintained for long enough, I think it it is unlikely that someone would ever recover significantly and certainly not completely. A question can't be answered, absolutely, like that in the abstract since there is so much room for variance in particular contexts, but i have no difficulty imagining circumstance from which no one would recover.

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It wasn't entirely true that they were free to leave at any time either. If someone wanted to leave they first had to talk with Zimbardo. In at least one case, a prisioner talked with Zimbardo then decided to continue the experiment despite the appearent psychological stress they were under. They went back feeling very confused and actually began a rumor that no one could leave because Zimbardo had asked him if he thought he would be able to continue rather than giving up on the experiment.

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The prisoners were made aware that they could leave, yet they choose, on their own token, to believe that they couldn't leave.

The prisoners were simultaneously aware of X and they believed the opposite of X? How exactly did they accomplish that?

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They held false premises on whether or not they could leave.

That usually happens to the victims of fraud.

The fact was only doubted because of themselves.

This was a scientific experiment with human subjects. It is the scientist's ethical responsibility to fully inform his subjects of the implications of the experiment. I think you are downplaying the role this guy had in the prisoners getting confused, I think he set them up to become confused intentionally.

But let's assume for a second that he didn't do it on purpose (I'm not conceding that point, I just think it's an interesting hypothetical scenario). Let's discuss the ethical responsibilities of a hypothetical scientist who finds himself dealing with a (temporarily) mentally impaired human subject: Would it not then become his responsibility to become the guardian of his subject's well being, for the duration of his experiment? Wouldn't he then become responsible for any damage caused to this mentally impaired subject? If not, then who else would have that responsibility? God? The mentally impaired subject who was rendered incapable of fending for himself?

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