In March 2015, we published a chapter on the ethics of both the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) and the BBC Prison Study. This appeared in a new volume edited by Robert Sternberg and Susan Fiske, entitled Ethical Challenges in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
The chapter was co-authored with Mark McDermott, the psychologist on the ethics panel for the BBC study, and now a Professor of Health Psychology at the University of East London. It addresses the range of complex ethical issues that our study, and Zimbardo's, raised and discusses the ethical safeguards that were put in place to deal with these.
The chapter also reflects on the ethical issues associated with not doing studies of this form. In particular, we argue that it is problematic if ethical obstacles mean that psychologists are not in a postion to challenge received, but possibly misleading, understandings of important phenomena such as tyranny.
As we conclude at the end of the chapter: "What the great field studies (like the SPE) managed to do was to dramatize the way that people can be transformed by the social world in which they find themselves. If we are blocked from examining such powerful social sources of variability, psychology will become increasingly dominated by the investigation of individual determinants of thought and action. This in turn will produce a skewed and misleading model of the human subject. And because human beings are reflexive creatures whose actions are influenced by their own self-understanding, this must be a source of significant ethical concern."
The book — which contains a range of very interesting and thought-provoking contributions — is available from Cambridge University Press. However, if you cannot get hold of it, we would also be happy to e-mail you a copy of the chapter.
- Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & McDermott, M. R. (2015). Studying harm-doing without doing harm: The case of the BBC Prison Study, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and the role conformity model of tyranny. In R. J. Sternberg, & S. E. Fiske (Eds.), Principles and case studies in ethics for the behavioral and brain sciences (pp.134-139). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.