Application of ethical principles

Application of Ethical Principles

What are the right ways to behave and the right ways to treat other people? Ethics are the rules and guidelines that we use to make judgments of right and wrong. Psychologists have to consider ethical issues because they deal with people and study their behavior on a daily basis.

There are many ethical issues surrounding the Stanford Prison Experiment. Participants both the guards and especially the prisoners, were put under tremendous pressure, psychologically and physically harmed, and participants were deceived. For the purpose of this paper I will be focusing on some of the many ethical issues presented in the experiment and the APA ethical codes that apply to these issues.

Ethical Issue Number One

"All subjects voluntarily agreed to play either role for $15 per day for up to two weeks. They signed a contract guaranteeing a minimally adequate diet, clothing, housing and medical care as well as the financial remuneration in return for their stated "intention" of serving in the assigned role for the duration of the study" (Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, 1973). They were given no other information about what to expect.

This goes against APA Ethical Code 8.02 Informed Consent to Research. When obtaining informed consent, psychologist has to inform participants about the purpose of the research, procedures, their right to decline to participate or withdraw, and reasonably foreseeable factors (APA, 2003). Participants signed contracts. The contracts were technically breached once they were deprived of their meals, free time and overall their civil rights. "Prisoners were served three bland meals per days, three supervised toilet visits, and given two hours daily for reading and writing letters" (Haney, et al., 1973). It was not part of the contract that participants would have to work towards these incentives.

Ethical Issue Number Two

Nowhere on the contract did it state that subjects would be arrested at their homes. "They were informed by phone to be available at their place of residence on a given Sunday when the experiment would start" (Haney, et al., 1973). Palo Alto City Police Department "arrested" the subjects at their residences. This is invading their privacy, trespassing and jeopardizing their reputation amongst the community.

APA Ethical Code 8.05 Dispensing with Informed Consent for Research states "...participants would not be placed at risk of criminal or civil liability or damage their financial standing, employability, or reputation, and confidentiality is protected..." (APA, 2003). This act goes beyond ethical issues, it falls under criminal act. The City of Palo Alto could be liable for assisting in a procedure without questioning the motives.

Ethical Issue Number Three

Five prisoners had to be released because of extreme emotional depression, crying, rage and acute anxiety. The pattern of symptoms was quite similar in four of the subjects and began as early as the second day of imprisonment (Haney, et al., 1973). Why didn't officials alter the experiment to prevent the five participants from withdrawal of the study?

The APA Ethical Code 8.07 Deception in Research reads (b) Psychologists does not deceive prospective participants about research that is reasonably expected to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress (APA, 2003). This occurred on the second day of the experiment. Psychologists should have stopped the experiment and concentrated on how to prevent such harm or cancel the study.


APA Ethical Code 8.08 Debriefing states, (a) Psychologists provide a prompt opportunity for participants to obtain appropriate information about the nature, results, and conclusions of the research, and they take reasonable steps to correct any misconceptions that participants may have of which the psychologists are aware; (b) If scientific or humane values justify delaying or withholding this information, psychologists take reasonable measures to reduce the risk of harm; (c) When psychologists become aware that research procedures have harmed a participant, they take reasonable steps to minimize the harm (APA, 2003).

The psychologist in the Stanford Prison Experiment fail to provide the appropriate information about the experiment to the participants, they ignored the fact that five of the participants were suffering from emotional stress on the second day of the experiment. They did not take reasonable measures to reduce the risk of harm nor did they take reasonable steps to minimize the harm. Therefore, this entire experiment violated APA Ethical Code 8.08.

If the Stanford Prison Experiment was to be conducted today it would be unethical. However, with the existence of the APA Ethical Codes, the experiment may be altered according to the ethical codes to make sure that unethical treatment does not repeat itself. It will be a controversial debate on whether an experiment like the Stanford Prison Experiment can ever be conducted again but with laws, regulations and APA codes, one can argue the safety of participants.


American Psychological Association. (2003). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Retrieved from

Haney, C., Banks, C., & Zimbardo, P. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-87. Retrieved from

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