The Stanford Prison Experiment

Friday, May 15, 2009
Posted by: Ms. Shea in In Class


Read about the animal experiment below. Then explain whether or not you believe this experiment is ethical. Use specific examples from the notes to justify your response 

From around 1960 onwards, Harry Harlow and his students began publishing their observations on the effects of partial and total social isolation on monkeys. Partial isolation involved raising monkeys in bare wire cages that allowed them to see, smell, and hear other monkeys, but provided no opportunity for physical contact. Total social isolation involved raising monkeys in isolation chambers that precluded any and all contact with other monkeys.

Harlow reported that partial isolation resulted in various abnormalities such as blank staring, stereotyped repetitive circling in their cages, and self-mutilation. These monkeys were then observed in various settings. Some of the monkeys remained in solitary confinement for 15 years.

In the total isolation experiments baby monkeys would be left alone for three, six, 12, or 24 months of “total social deprivation.” The experiments produced monkeys that were severely psychologically disturbed. Harlow wrote:

No monkey has died during isolation. When initially removed from total social isolation, however, they usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by … autistic self-clutching and rocking. One of six monkeys isolated for 3 months refused to eat after release and died 5 days later. The autopsy report attributed death to emotional anorexia. … The effects of 6 months of total social isolation were so devastating and debilitating that we had assumed initially that 12 months of isolation would not produce any additional decrement. This assumption proved to be false; 12 months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially …

Harlow tried to reintegrate the monkeys who had been isolated for six months by placing them with monkeys who had been reared normally. The rehabilitation attempts met with limited success. Harlow wrote that total social isolation for the first six months of life produced “severe deficits in virtually every aspect of social behavior.” Isolates exposed to monkeys the same age who were raised normally “achieved only limited recovery of simple social responses.” Some monkey mothers reared in isolation exhibited “acceptable maternal behavior when forced to accept infant contact over a period of months, but showed no further recovery.” Isolates given to surrogate mothers developed “crude interactive patterns among themselves.” Opposed to this, when six-month isolates were exposed to younger, three-month-old monkeys, they achieved “essentially complete social recovery for all situations tested.” The findings were confirmed by other researchers, who found no difference between peer-therapy recipients and mother-reared infants, but found that artificial surrogates had very little effect.

Harry Harlow’s pit of despair

Harlow was well known for refusing to use conventional terminology, and instead chose deliberately outrageous terms for the experimental apparatus he devised. The tendency arose from an early conflict with the conventional psychological establishment in which Harlow used the term “love” in place of the popular and archaically correct term, “attachment.” Such terms and respective devices included a forced-mating device he called the “rape rack,” tormenting surrogate mother devices he called “Iron maidens,” and an isolation chamber he called the “pit of despair” developed by him and a graduate student,Stephen Suomi.

In the pit of despair,” baby monkeys were left alone in darkness for up to one year from birth, or repetitively separated from their peers and isolated in the chamber. These procedures quickly produced monkeys that were severely psychologically disturbed and declared to be valuable models of human depression.

Harlow tried to rehabilitate monkeys that had been subjected to varying degrees of isolation using various forms of therapy. “In our study of psychopathology, we began as sadists trying to produce abnormality. Today we are psychiatrists trying to achieve normality and equanimity.”

The Standford Prison Experiment 

1. How did the researchers find participants?

2. Who were the participants?

3. What was the purpose of the study?


4. How was the prison constructed?

5. How were the prisoners humiliated upon entering prison?

6. What was the purpose of the foot chain and the dress smock if they are not really used in most prisons?


7. What did prisoners consent to in the agreement they signed at the beginning?

8. How did the guards punish some of the prisoners?

9. How did the guards react to the prisoner rebellion?


10. How did the other prisoners react to #8612 telling them they couldn’t leave?

11. How did the parents of the prisoners react during visiting hours?

12. How did the psychological mindset of the researchers change as the experiment progressed?


13. What role did the priest play in the experiment

14. How did prisoner #819 react to taunts?

15. How did the researchers define the three different types of guards?

16. How did the prisoners react to prisoner #416s hunger strike?


17. Why did the researchers end the experiment?

18. Do you believe this experiment was ethical? Explain. 

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