Analyzing Zimbardo’s Experiment

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.

 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.


Haney, C., Banks, C., Zimbardo, P. (1973) A Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Stimulated Prison. Naval Research. Retrieved from

Haslam, S., Reicher S.. (2003) Beyond Stanford: Questioning a role-based explanation of tyranny. Dialogue (2003), 18,22-25. Retrieved from

Meyers, M. R. (2008). The Lucifer Effect. Magill’s Literary Annual 2008, 1–3. Retrieved form

Sunstein, C. R. (2007). The Thin Line. New Republic, 236(16), 51–55. Retrieved from


Milgram and Zimbardo’s Experiments on Obedience and Compliance

The Milgram Obedience experiment, which is also known as the Obedience to Authority Study, is a very well known scientific experiment in social psychology. The concept of the experiment was first discussed in 1963 in the Behavioral Study of Obedience in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology by Yale university psychologist Stanley Milgram and later in his 1974 publication Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. The purpose of this experiment is to test the power of human nature to resist the authority of an authority who gives an order against their conscience. This experiment was regarded as a typical one about the obedience experiment, and it had strong repercussions in the social psychology circle.

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The following is some basic processes of the experiment:Milgram first advertised in the newspaper for participants and paid them $4.50 for each trial. Forty people, ranging in age from 25 to 50, were recruited to take part in the experiment. They were told they would take part in an experiment to study the effects of punishment on students’ learning. In the experiment, two people were paired, one as a student and one as a teacher. Who shall be the student and who shall be the teacher shall be determined by lot. The teacher’s task is to read the paired related words. The students must remember the words. Then the student need to choose the correct answer from four opinions after teacher presents a word. If the choice is wrong, the teacher pushes the button and gives the students an electric shock as punishment.
Due to prior arrangement, each group actually had only one participant, and the other was an assistant of the experiment. As a result, the participants were always teachers and the assistants were always students. At the beginning of the experiment, an assistant and a participant were placed in two rooms separated by a wall. Electrodes were attached to the students’ arms so that they could be given an electric shock if they made a bad choice. Moreover, the experimenter strapped the “student” to a chair, explaining to the “teacher” that it was to prevent him from escaping. “Teacher” and “student” cannot see each other directly, they use the telecommunication transmission way to keep in touch. There were buttons on a total of 30, imposing electric penalties are marked on the each button it controlled by the voltage, starting from 15 volts, increased to 450 volts in turn. In fact, no shock was actually implemented, in the next room, the experimenter turned on a tape recorder, which played a pre recorded scream paired with the action of a generator. However, to make the participants convinced, they first received a 45-volt electric shock as an experience. Although the experimenter said the shock was mild, it was too much for the participants to bear.
During the experiment, the “student” made many mistakes intentionally. After the “teacher” pointed out his mistakes, he gave electric shock immediately. The “student” groaned repeatedly. As the voltage rises, the “student” shouts and scolds, then begs, kicks and hits the wall, and finally stops yelling, seemingly fainting. At this point, many of the participants expressed a desire to pause the experiment to check on the students. Many participants paused at 135 volts and questioned the purpose of the experiment. Some went on to take the test after receiving assurances that they were not liable. Some laughed nervously as they heard the students scream. When a participant indicated that he wanted to stop the experiment, the experimenter responded in the following order:

Please continue.
This experiment needs you to continue. Please continue.
It is necessary that you go on.
You have no choice, you must go on.

If, after four times of prompting, the participants still wanted to stop, the experiment stopped. Otherwise, the experiment will continue until the punishment voltage applied by the participants increases to the maximum 450 volts and continues for three times.
In this case, 26 participants (65% of the total) obeyed the experimenter’s order and persisted until the end of the experiment, but showed varying degrees of nervousness and anxiety. Fourteen others (35% of the total) rebelled and refused to carry out the order, saying it was cruel and immoral. After the experiment, Milgram told the truth to all the participants in order to eliminate their anxiety.
Surprisingly, before the experiment, Milgram had asked his fellow psychologists to predict the outcome of the experiment, and they all agreed that only a few people — 1 in 10 or even 1 percent — would be willing to continue punishing until the maximum volt. As a result, in Milgram’s first experiment, 65 percent of the participants (more than 27 out of 40) reached the maximum 450 volts of punishment — even though they all showed discomfort. Everyone paused and questioned the experiment when the volts reached a certain level, and some even said they wanted to give their money back. None of the participants persisted in stopping before reaching 300 volts. Milgram himself and a number of psychologists around the world have since done similar or different experiments, but with similar results. Dr Thomas Blass of the university of Maryland, Baltimore county, repeated the experiment many times and came up with the result: Regardless of the time and place of the experiment, a certain percentage of participants — 61 percent to 66 percent — were willing to apply a lethal voltage to each experiment.
As Philip Zimbardo recalled, due to little awareness about the experiment, participants who didn’t reach the highest volts didn’t insist that the experiment itself should end, didn’t visit the “student” in the next room, and didn’t ask the experimenter for permission to leave.
Milgram stated in his article The Perils of Obedience (1974) that the legal and philosophical views of obedience are very significant, but they say little about the actions people take when confronted with practical situations. He designed this experiment at Yale university to test an ordinary citizen’s willingness to inflict much or little pain on another human being just because of the orders given by a scientist assisting the experiment. When the authority that led the experiment ordered the participant to harm another person, even more so than the screams of pain the participant had heard, the authority continued to order the participant most of the time, even though the participant was so morally disturbed. Experiments have shown how willing adults are to submit to almost any measure of power, and we must study and explain this phenomenon as soon as possible.
The experiment itself has raised ethical questions about the science of the experiment, which puts extreme emotional pressure on participants. Although the experiment led to valuable discoveries in human psychology, many scientists today would consider such experiments unethical. A later survey found that 84% of the participants at the time said they felt “happy” or “very happy” to have taken part in the experiment, that 15% of the participants chose to be neutral (92% of the participants did the post-survey), and many of them later thanked Milgram. And Milgram kept getting calls from former participants who wanted to help him with his experiments again, or even to join his research team. However, the experience of the experiment did not change every participant for life. Many participants were not told the details based on modern experimental standards, and exit interviews showed that many participants still did not seem to understand what was going on. The main criticism of experiments is not the ethical controversy of their methods, but the significance they represent. A participant from Yale university in 1961 wrote in the magazine of the Jewish Currents: when he wanted to stop in the middle of as a “teacher”, is a suspect to “the whole experiment may be just designed, in order to test an ordinary americans will follow orders against conscience – like Germany during the Nazi period” and this is one of the purpose of the experiment. Milgram, in his book The Perils of Obedience (1974), said, “the question we face is how the conditions we create in the laboratory to bring people to power are related to the Nazi era that we deplored.”
An ordinary person, just to get his work done, without any personal malice or enmity, can actually be a tool for a horrific process of destruction. Moreover, when their work makes the destruction process obvious, when the tasks they are asked to perform do not conform to their own moral values, most people are unable to resist the orders of leaders.
On the basis of the first experiment, Milgram further discusses what factors are involved in the generation of obedience behavior. He explored the manipulation of experimental conditions from the subjective and objective dimensions of obedience. The objective conditions of Milgram’s operation include many.
Firstly, it is the distance between “teacher” and “student”: The distance between teachers and students is divided into four grades, with 40 participants participating in each grade. After analysing the data, the result shows that the closer the “student” is to “teacher”, the more the participant refuses to obey, and the farther the distance is, the easier the participant is to obey. Secondly, it is the relationship between the experimenter and the participant. The relationship was divided into three situations: the experimenter and the participant were face to face together; the experimenter left after explaining the task and kept in touch with the participant by telephone; the experimenter was not present, and all instructions were played by a tape recorder. The results showed that in the first case, the participants obeyed three times more than in the other cases. Thirdly, it is the status of the experimenter. The results showed that the higher the status of the experimenters, the higher the number of the “students” who were tested with the strongest electric shock.
In addition, there are many factors affecting obedience, which can be summarised into three aspects:

the sender of the order. His authority, whether he supervises the execution of orders, affects obedience.
the executor of a command. His moral level, personality characteristics and cultural background will also affect his obedience to orders.
situational factors. For example, whether someone supports his refusal behavior, what is the example behavior of those around him, how is the reward structure set, how is the feedback of his refusal or execution of orders, etc., will also affect the individual’s obedience behavior.

In conclusion, just like some social psychologists believe that there are two main reasons why individuals obey behaviors. The first is legal power. We usually think that in certain situations, society has given certain social roles more power, and it is our duty to obey them. For example, students should obey teachers, patients should obey doctors, etc. In the laboratory, participants should obey the experimenter, especially the unfamiliar situation strengthens the participants’ readiness to obey the orders of the experimenter. The second is the transfer of responsibility. In general, we have our own sense of responsibility for our own behavior, but if we think that the responsibility for a certain behavior is not our own, especially when a commander takes the initiative to take responsibility, we will think that the leader of the behavior is not our own, but the commander. Therefore, we don’t have to be responsible for this behavior, so there’s a transfer of responsibility, and people don’t think about the consequences of their behavior.