Bioethics Blogs

The Stanford Prison Experiment film: An Essential Teaching Tool

By Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In teaching research ethics, there are a few “classic cases” that we offer students as examples of where human subject research went wrong: Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis, the Nazi medical experiments, Willowbrook Hepatitis Experiments, human radiation experiments, and (now) the Guatemala syphilis study, among others. When discussing social science examples, the two studies that are usually taught at Milgram’s obedience studies and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment.

As an undergraduate at Stanford, my Psychology 101 teacher was Philip Zimbardo. He proudly talked to us about his famous experiment. The man was a great lecturer. In a classroom of 300 students, he held our attention as a master showman. At one point, he tried to hypnotize the entire class and had us complete a survey on how susceptible we were. If you scored high enough, you were invited to be part of his new study. The strange thing was we knew about the Prison Experiment and still, everyone wanted to be part of his study. I know a few people who lied on their survey just for the chance to participate. Even our exams were experiments. The first exam was taken alone; the second with a partner, and the third was your choice. This experiment was an attempt to show that people do better on exams when they work together (apology to my partner as I did worse on the group exam than on the single one). Zimbardo is one of those rare individuals who has intense charisma that draws people to him, and those people want to please him.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.