To be Ethical or Not to be Ethical?

When researchers are interested in conducting an experiment or study based on human subjects, there are strict guidelines that they must follow. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) is an administrative body established to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects recruited to participate in research activities conducted under the facilitation of the institution with which it is affiliated. The guidelines  Some of these guidelines have protected classes that are considered vulnerable populations. These populations include:

  • Pregnant women
  • Children
  • Prisoners
  • People with cognitive impairments
  • Elderly 

Because these populations are the easiest to manipulate, they are restricted from being a human research subject. Also, it is important to follow the 3 basic ethical principles for judging the treatment of human participants:


  • Respect for persons: The personal dignity and autonomy of individuals must be recognized and there must be special protections for persons with ‘diminished autonomy (e.g. children and prisoners)
  • Beneficence: Researchers have an obligation to protect persons from harm by maximising the anticipated benefits and minimising the risk of harm
  • Justice: The benefits and burdens of research must be distributed fairly (“Research with human participants: Key principles”, 2017).

When we think about what has occurred during the Stanford Prison Experiment, we must analyze the ethics behind Phillip Zimbardo’s methods of research. Within the experiment, Phillip Zimbardo instructed the guards to use any form of psychological tactics to break down the  prisoner’s psyche, individuality, and spirits.

Right from the start of the Stanford Prison Experiment there were ethical issues at stake. The participants were not given all the facts about what exactly they were signing and consent forms were not properly completed. Although the participants were informed they would be taking part in a mock prison experiment, it would have come as a complete shock to be arrested at home and strip searched upon entry into the prison — and strip searching without consent is a complete violation of rights. This broke the ethical principle of justice, which allows the benefits and burdens of research to be distributed fairly. Being that they did not know they were going to be arrested at their home, this was a violation of their understanding of the experiment. Also, within the experiment, Phillip Zimbardo instructed the guards to use any form of psychological tactics to break down the  prisoner’s psyche, individuality, and spirits.  Any experiment that places its participants under enormous psychological stress could be considered unethical. The same also applies to any experiment where the participants are physically harmed. One of the biggest criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment is the length of time it took Zimbardo to stop the experiment, despite overwhelming evidence showing that even by the second day conditions inside the prison had begun to show clear signs of potential harm to the participants. If modern guidelines were followed, the Stanford Prison Experiment would never have been allowed to take place as it would constitute a serious breach of ethics in accordance with the guidelines of the American Psychological Association.

Source:  Research with human participants: Key principles. (2017). Retrieved 6 December 2017, from


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