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Analyzing Zimbardo’s Experiment

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 1997 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The Zimbardo Prison Experiment (1973), occurred in order to analyze what influences individuals to change their behaviors, such as dispositional or situational. The research explicitly asserts Phillip Zimbardo is interested in seeing how situations such as social environments dictate how individuals act. Zimbardo’s prison experiment took an experimental perspective in social psychology. Even though this experiment is well known, it has ethical and methodological problems important to consider when conducting social psychology research. There are many ways this experiment could have prevented problems by taking in consideration different aspects.

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The Zimbardo prison experiment took place at Stanford University in 1971 after professor Zimbardo placed an ad to hire male participants to engage in a study. After narrowing it down to 21 participants and randomly selecting them to fill the role of guards and prisoners the experiment began. The participants acknowledged a contract that informed them of some things to expect and how some of their rights were going to have to be revoked during the course.  The guards went through an orientation before the study of what they were expected to do throughout the experiment, leaving them to think the prisoners were the ones that were going to be studied.  The experiment was expected to be as realistic as possible. Therefore, a prison-like environment was constructed in the basement of the university, where participants wore uniforms, and performed roles realistically from the beginning.  During day two to six, there were prisoner rebellions, mental breakdowns, hunger strikes, privileges, and guard aggression that continued to escalate. The experiment’s goal was to see how an individual’s behavior and emotions are influenced by the social environment they are placed in and the roles they undertook. The researcher did not inform the participants explicitly of what was being studied in the experiment. However, Zimbardo was aware of what he was researching and notified the rest of the researchers of his explicit question.

 This experiment took on a critical perspective in social psychology research by researching how individuals are influenced and interconnected to the social world around them. The research presented in the experiment was qualitative in observing the behaviors of the participants through their social environments. While the sample size was quite small with only 21 participants and there were no variables identified. Through the experiment, we get a deeper understanding of how the experience of the participant’s suits the context, including how the individuals within it are not able to be able to see from an outside perspective. The experiment displayed an intersubjective representation of how individuals collectively create an understanding of the world they are inside. Through this, we witness how situation attribution occurs. Our behaviors, morals, and emotions are intertwined to the situations and environments we are placed within. The experiment also highlights how individuals internalize the roles they are placed in by becoming conformed and adjusting their behaviors to them. Cognitive dissonance is also present in the experiment leading one to analyze how one’s behaviors are influenced by this. The guards present cognitive dissonance while justifying their cruel actions and blaming the prisoners while enforcing more power on them. The impact of deindividuation also displays in the experiment by showing how as the prisoners begin to lose their identity they were more prone to accepting being mistreated, while the guards became more violent as the prisoners became more identifiable with their numbers.

 The Zimbardo experiment is a very well-known study, due to how it analyzes a certain situation and the participant’s actions. However, there is a lot of controversy with how this experiment was performed. There are many problems that have been analyzed in the research. To start out an ethical issue is that the creator of the experiment, Zimbardo, decided to include himself in the experiment. This opened the door to unbiased actions occurring within the experiment since Zimbardo, the main individual analyzing the experiment, became a non-natural observer. He became so involved with the experiments situation and lost sight of the outside perspective. He did not become aware of when unethical behaviors were occurring within the experiment. Especially since “Zimbardo himself took responsibility for creating norms which encouraged tyranny, [limiting] insight into the wat in which tranny might emerge as part of a social process” (Haslam S., Reicher S., 2003, p.24). The experiment also lacked variables making it hard to analyze the qualitative information the experiment presented. It did not present operational definitions, what is being measured, or controls. Even though the experiment did try to make the setting as realistic as possible, a methodological issue is that “ethical, legal, and practical considerations set limits upon the degree to which the situation could approach” (Haney et al, 1973, p. 11) the realistic prison environment. The study is hard to generalize due to sample size and the fact they were all males, of the same age, race, and education level.  The experiment is hard to be replicated due to the methodological issue of how, “although instructions about how to behave in the roles of guards or prisoners were not explicitly defined, Demand characteristics in the experiment obviously exerted some directing influence” (Haney et al, 1973, p. 11). The participant’s actions could have been guided by how they thought the researcher wanted them to behave in the experiment. For example, “on that day the prisoners staged a rebellion, ripping off their numbers, refusing to obey commands, and mocking the guards. Zimbardo asked the guards to take steps to control the situation, and they did exactly that.” (Sunstein, C.R., 2007). Selection bias could also have occurred in the experiment due to Zimbardo selecting to participants based on certain aspects and not randomly. Lastly, another ethical issue regarding the study that questions its creditability is that “the study was never reported in a mainstream social psychology journal” (Haslam S., Reicher S., 2003, p.22) and it is controversial to analyze the information Zimbardo has presented about it on his website.

 If I was to construct an alternative social psychological research project to answer the same questions identified in the original study, I would construct one similar to Zimbardo’s, however, avoid having many issues. To answer the question of how an individual is influenced by their social context, I would construct an observational study. My experiment will be a critical study one where a qualitative approach will be exercised. My hypothesis would consist that individuals change and demonstrate social priming depending on their social context and influence. We will observe the qualitative behaviors of the control group which is the realistic jails and the experimental jails. My independent variable will by the jail where the participants are chosen, while my dependent one will be the realistic jail. I will use macro-discourse analysis to analyze the qualitative information of how particular functions display the deployment of power. Every day through observation each participant will be evaluated on their levels of power, conformity, and submission behaviors by the psychologist. I would not create internal validity by guiding participants behaviors in telling them how they are supposed to act. They will only be told the experiments sample size of 10 individuals as guards and 10 as prisoners and they will be in the jail setting for 15 days. The setting of my experiment will take place in two different jails where individuals of different ages, education levels, and backgrounds will be selected to participate. I will also observe 2 different jails in the normal setting with everyday guards and prisoners in order to observe naturalistic observation. I will not construct a jail for my participants since “bias could have been minimized [in Zimbardo’s experiment] by using multiple small jails across the country to lessen the impact of Zimbardo’s own preconceptions” (Meyers, M. R., 2008). Before the study, I would have psychological tests performed on them by other doctors to determine that the participants are all in a good state of mind and health. After the participants are given random assignment they will only be given their custom, placed in the setting, and observed. The guards will have access to going outside after their 10 hour shifts, however, will have a strict schedule. While the prisoner will have to remain in the jail and follow the schedule the prisoner sets upon them 24/7. I will not participate in any role of the experiment so that no methodological biases are created. At the end of the experiment, I will compare the actions from the guards and prisoners. I will also examine the actions of the participants and those of the real individuals in their environment. Finally, at the end of the experiment I will make sure to make a responsible, honest, and valuable publication of the experiment.

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 Zimbardo’s prison experiment is a famous experiment. It takes place in order to evaluate an individuals impact depending on their social context. He selected the most favorable type of experiment necessary to research his question. However, there is a lot of experimental issues involved in his experiment. Zimbardo has many ethical and methodological problems associated with his experiment. These problems include him taking a role in the experiment and telling his participants what was expected of them. If I was to research the same question Zimbardo did, of how an individual is impacted by their social context. I will also perform an observation experiment. However, I would do everything in my power to make sure no experimental issues and biases arise. Lastly, I will also have concrete variables and evaluations which will enable me to determine my finding. This will allow me to correctly publish my research.



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