The Investigation Of A Human Nature In Stanford Prison Experiment And Milgram’s Obedience To Authority Experiment

This essay sample was donated by a student to help the academic community. Papers provided by EduBirdie writers usually outdo students' samples.

Cite this essay cite-image

Social psychology is the scientific study of how people’s behaviour, thoughts, feelings, actions, belief and moral conduct changes significantly when interacting with others in a social setting that could either be a real life, such as a prison institution, or an imagined one set up solely as a case study, or experiment to measure results (McLeod 2007).

Two psychologists, Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram, carried out a number of conformity experimental studies to explore and understand why people’s behaviour changed and why they conformed, and exercised obedience to authority, despite feeling morally convicted. However, the participants still complied. Zimbardo’s well-known experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiment, which are still being debated today and referred to as the two most famous experiments in psychology, despite the ethics and methodology used. Both psychologists observed, how individuals conformed to obey orders from authority figures, and carried out abhorrent acts that were inhumane causing a great deal of psychological, mental, emotional damage to individuals under their care. The subjects’ behaviour also changed resulting in them becoming obedient to authority, rather than challenging being on the receiving end of such cruel and mental abuse (Russell & Gregory, 2010).

Save your time!
We can take care of your essay
  • Proper editing and formatting
  • Free revision, title page, and bibliography
  • Flexible prices and money-back guarantee
Place an order

The aim of this study was to investigate how far people would go, in carrying out an instruction if it were to harm another person. Milgram wondered how easily ordinary people could be affected by atrocities.

Milgram’s methodology was a laboratory experiment, to determine how far a person would go to obeying an instruction, even if it meant causing harming to another human being (McLeod 2007). Milgram recruited 40 male volunteers for a lab experiment. The male participant ages ranged from 20 to 50, their jobs were a combination of unskilled to professional. Each participant to be paid $4.50, which is the equivalent $38.04 today, for just turning up. The roles were split into learner or teacher. Two rooms in the Yale Interaction Laboratory were set-up for this experiment, one for the learner who would be strapped to a chair with electrodes and, the other room for the teacher and experimenter (Milgram) with an electric shock generator. The learner then had to learn a pairing of words and given four possible choices. Each time the learner failed to identify the correct pairing would receive an electric shock ranging from 15 volts (mild) to 450 (highly dangerous). The learner had been debriefed and aware the electrical shocks had a placebo effect, acted up to the role well and made it seem very real. The learner deliberately gave many wrong answers, which increased the intensity of the shocks. During the experiment, the learner became very distressed and repeatedly asked for the experiment to end. The teacher, unaware of the placebo effect of the electric shock, strongly voiced his concerns of the damage it appeared to be causing the learner and, at one point, refused to continue.

The experimenter ordered the teacher to continue and reassured the teacher they would take full responsibility for any harm caused to the participant (Russell & Gregory, 2010).BThe findings of this study revealed, that 65% (two-thirds) of the participants that were teachers continued at the highest 450 volt level. All participants continued at 300 volts. Milgram’s experiments were in laboratories, so they had no experience on real life situations. It is suggested that Milgram during this experiment, failed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the participant in his care. The learner’s right to withdraw from the experiment at any time was not exercised.

Ordinary people are likely to follow the instructions of authority even to the extent of killing an innocent person. Obedience to power is rooted in us from the way we are brought up. People tend to obey other people’s orders, if they recognise their authority is morally just. This response to legitimate power is learned in a variety of situations, such as the family, school, and workplace.

However, critics raised questions to the validity of the study and refuted its findings. Why was the study carried out on male volunteers? Why did the study not include any female participants? It had ethical issue like deception, like why were learners not told about the details of experiment? The environment was very stressful, and volunteers safety was not taken into consideration (

Despite Milgram video recording his experiment, which would suggest the participants consented to the experiment. However, not all participants were fully briefed or made aware of the risks or harm involved. A level of deception played a huge part, as the teacher was unaware the shocks given to the learner had a placebo effect that would not cause them any harm. The teacher reluctantly continued giving electric shocks, even after hearing the learners crying and demanding the experiment to be stopped. The teacher complied to commands given by an authority, despite a moral conscious.

The learner was playing his role in the experiment, but the teacher was unaware the shocks were a placebo stimuli. The use of deception had to play a part in the experiment, to measure the results of the study, which would have shown how far the participants would have gone to conform. Comparing this experiment to Zimbardo’s, which was conducted to find out whether the atrocities reported among guards, in American prisons were due to sadistic guard personalities or had more to do with the prison environment.

In 1971, Zimbardo conducted a mock prison experiment in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building. They recruited 24 healthy white male college students for the two-week experiment. The personality tests, and clinical interviews carried out prior to the experiment showed them all to be normal. Each person would receive $15 a day for their participation (Lunt 2009). Zimbardo divided the roles into 12 prisoners, and 12 guards. Zimbardo decided to play the role of superintendent and briefed the guards to exercise control. Zimbardo feared the participants would not take the role serious but was shocked at how quickly they took to their roles. Zimbardo’s team arranged for the city police to pick up the prisoners from their homes, hand cuff and search them and then, take them to a police station. This is where they were fingerprinted and placed in a cell. Whilst blind-folded they were transported to the mock prison (Lunt 2009).Upon arrival, the prisoners were stripped naked, sprayed, and made to stand naked in the cell yard. The guard’s behaviour became very disturbing and degrading towards the prisoners. The psychological and mental abuse caused to the prisoners led to some breaking down, crying uncontrollably, becoming despondent and disorientated. The prison was dark with no natural daylight. By the fifth day, four prisoners had broken down and been released. One prisoner had to be released 36 hours into the experiment due to his mental state. Then, a couple of days later a further three prisoners were released, with a fifth prisoner developing a psychosomatic rash over his entire body, as a result of rejection by a mock parole board (Whitbourne 2018). A female psychologist and Zimbardo’s colleague visited the mock prison and witnessed the brutality of the experiment first-hand. She was angry with Zimbardo and pointed out the young men were suffering. She blamed Zimbardo, and held him responsible for allowing this to happen, and failing to recognise the suffering and harm the prisoners had endured. Zimbardo had become so engrossed in the experiment he lost sight of reality, and the safety of the prisoners. The next day Zimbardo terminated the study permanently (Lunt 2009).

According to Zimbardo and his colleagues, the Stanford Prison experiment shows the powerful role that a situation can play in human behavior. Because the guards were placed in a position of power, they began to behave in ways they would not normally behave in their daily lives or other situations. Based on the supporting evidence, Zimbardo’s experiment was considered more brutal as this was emphasised in the interviews conducted from the guards and prisoners. According to Zimbardo and his colleagues, the Stanford Prison experiment has revealed how people will easily adapt to the social roles they are expected to play, especially if the roles are as strongly stereotypical as prison guards.

Zimbardo’s experiment was criticised the most, because he did not care about the safety of the prisoners. They suffered at the hands of the guards, by experiencing physical and mental torture. Conformity was key for the prisoners, otherwise there would have been repercussions. The ethical issues using human subjects as experiments has since changed to protect the safety of the participants – what went wrong? Did the participants consent, was there any protection from harm, did the prisoners feel shame for their role? Zimbardo could have spared the prisoners distress, had he not taken on a dual role.

Ethical guidelines changed to provide safer guidelines to protect participants after the Zimbardo and Milgram studies (Pastin 2013). Zimbardo invited all the participants back to engage in a discussion after the experiment which was video recorded. The prisoners described how they felt degraded, shame and humiliation at the hands of the guards, how they were still suffering from psychological effects after the experiment. The guards felt guilty and shocked hearing how the cruelty they unleashed and lengths they went to exercise power and authority harmed the prisoners. The guards tried to justify their actions they were attempting to make the experiment real to achieve the desired results and outcome for the experiment.

A study of obedience to authority in a real-life scenario will now be discussed. The study to determine, how many nurses who take orders over the phone from a doctor and comply, irrespective if it goes against regulations, and strict guidelines.

A research was conducted and during the process, there were only 22 actual evening nurses who on the night shift, unaware they were part of a study. During the night shift, the nurses had received a phone call from an unknown Doctor requesting they administer 20mg of astroten to patients. Although administering this dose would have been fatal to the patients, the nurses conformed to the instructions, and were about to inject it.

There were several ethic codes that were broken in this experiment. The nurses first of all, were not allowed to receive instructions over the phone by an unknown Doctor, and second of all the maximum dose that could have been administered was 10MG, and this was not allowed for the ward to carry out.

The Milgram experiment was held in a laboratory and carefully supervised. The learner had been briefed and given the right to withdraw from the experiment at any time. Deception played a huge part as the teacher was completely unaware of the placebo effect of the experiment, and huge concerns for the safety of the learner.

In contrast to Milgram’s experiment, Zimbardo’s was more brutal, and caused lasting psychological damage. Hofling replicated a similar study to Milgram’s, except the nurses were unaware they were in a real-life experiment. The nurses were deceived, as they were not made aware, they were in a study therefore there was no informed consent.

Based on the supporting evidence Zimbardo’s experiment was considered more brutal as this was emphasised in the interviews conducted from the guards and prisoners (Zimbardo, Haney, Banks and Jaffe, 1971). Transcripts from the experiment, revealed the true extent of the psychological harm that came to the prisoners (Zimbardo et al, 1971). Some of the guards were interviewed on why they behaved in such a brutal and inhumane way (Zimbardo et al, 1971). One guard in particular, who was nicknamed ‘John Wayne,’ (Zimbardo et al, 1971) was extremely brutal towards the prisoners. When he was interviewed, he stated that he wanted to aspire in his role as a guard and give something to the researchers to observe on (Zimbardo et al, 1971).

The British psychological society, who set out the code of ethics for psychologists (British psychological society, 2018). They follow four key elements, which are; respect, competence, responsibility and integrity (British psychological society, 2018). These are ingredients, which in modern society would make a professional psychologist (British psychological society, 2018). According to the British psychological society, and their code of ethics and guidelines, the Zimbardo study would have breached them severely and would have potentially led to a criminal conviction, had the experiment been conducted today (British psychological society, 2018).

The Milgram experiment could be replicated in today’s times (British Psychological Society, 2018). Although, there was deception involved, this would have been necessary to achieve accurate results from the study (British Psychological Society, 2018). However, according to the British psychological society, full informed consent would need to be given, the risk and harm involved in the experiment would need to be outlined in full by the researcher (British psychological Society, 2018).

The ethical problems with the Hofling study is slightly different to that of Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s. The Hofling study was a replica of Milgram’s experiment. Although the nurses did not come out of the experiment with any lasting psychological harm (British psychological society, 2018), but according to the British psychological society the researchers would have to obtain informed consent, from the participants (British Psychological Society, 2018) and again the potential of risk, and harm would have to be relayed to them. The participants would have had to, according to the British psychological society been given the choice to withdraw from the experiment at any time (British psychological society, 2018).

In conclusion the experiments conducted, were not worth the psychological harm that came to its participants. The harm that came to the participants in Zimbardo’s experiment, was not worth the cost to the participants mental, and physical health. However, if conducted in an ethical manner these experiments could prove vital, as seen in the Hofling and Milgram’s studies.


  1. McLeod, S. (2007). Social Psychology, [online]. Available at: (Accessed: 23/10/2020).
  2. Horn, S. (2018). Prison Legal News, [online]. Available at: (Accessed on 23/10/2020).
  3. Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Zimbardo’s Infamous Prison Experiment: Where the Key Players Are Now [online]. Available at: (Accessed on 23/10/2020).
  4. Toppo, G. (2018). Inside Higher Ed, [online]. Available at: (Accessed on 23/10/2020).
  5. Cherry, K. (2019). Very Well Mind, [online]. Available at: (Accessed on 23/10/2020).
  6. Gray, P. (2013). Why Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment Isn’t in My Textbook, [online]. Available at: (Accessed on 23/10/2020).
  7. Bachman, R. and Schutt, R. (2012) The Practice of Research in Criminology and Criminal Justice, (5th Edn), Chapter 3, page 57 Research Ethics and Philosophies California: Los Angeles
  8. Lunt, P. (2009). Stanley Milgram:Understanding Obedience and Its Implications Russell & Gregory, 2010
  9. Zimbardo, P and White, A. (1971). Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment [online]. Available at: (Accessed on 23/10/2020).
  10. Perry, G. (2012). Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. [online]. Available at: (Accessed on 23/10/2020).
  11. Banyard, P. and Flanagan, C. (2011). Ethical Issues in Psychology [online]. Available at:
  12. Pastin, M. (2013). Making an Ethical Difference [online]. Available at: (Accessed on 23/10/2020).
Make sure you submit a unique essay

Our writers will provide you with an essay sample written from scratch: any topic, any deadline, any instructions.

Cite this paper

The Investigation Of A Human Nature In Stanford Prison Experiment And Milgram’s Obedience To Authority Experiment. (2021, September 20). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from
“The Investigation Of A Human Nature In Stanford Prison Experiment And Milgram’s Obedience To Authority Experiment.” Edubirdie, 20 Sept. 2021,
The Investigation Of A Human Nature In Stanford Prison Experiment And Milgram’s Obedience To Authority Experiment. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 17 Jun. 2024].
The Investigation Of A Human Nature In Stanford Prison Experiment And Milgram’s Obedience To Authority Experiment [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 20 [cited 2024 Jun 17]. Available from:

Join our 150k of happy users

  • Get original paper written according to your instructions
  • Save time for what matters most
Place an order

Fair Use Policy

EduBirdie considers academic integrity to be the essential part of the learning process and does not support any violation of the academic standards. Should you have any questions regarding our Fair Use Policy or become aware of any violations, please do not hesitate to contact us via

Check it out!
search Stuck on your essay?

We are here 24/7 to write your paper in as fast as 3 hours.