If you look up the meaning of ‘Ethics’ on Google, you will find the following definition: “A set of moral principles, especially ones relating to or affirming a specified group, field, or form of conduct”. So, by understanding this, we can assume that ‘research ethics’ refer to what should and shouldn’t be done whilst undertaking any form of research. So why are research ethics important? Well, simply because they prevent us from doing immoral things and possibly causing harm. The highly controversial “Stanford Experiment” in 1971 is an interesting example of the potential harm and consequences that follows unethical research.
The infamous Stanford Experiment, undertaken in 1971, revolved around a prison simulation where a group of paid students who were split into two groups: prisoners and prison wardens. The idea of the experiment was to simply observe the changes in behaviour. Undertaken by Dr. Zimbardo, the experiment was highly criticized (and for good reason) for the sadistic behaviour and malnutrition which occurred as a result. Now, just by reading this brief summary of the experiment, we can already identify several questionable components: What determines whether an individual is a prisoner or a warden, how will the students’ health be affected due to living in a prison-like environment and is this experiment justified? These are concerns which didn’t appear to be thoroughly addressed prior to the start of the experiment, thus leading to hunger strikes, sadistic behaviour and numerous mental breakdowns. The experiment worked, in a way, but at what cost?
An important question we must ask ourselves before undertaking research is will the result be worth the cost? The Stanford experiment may have been successful through the eyes of Dr. Zimbardo, but was it worth psychologically damaging numerous students in order to attain the results? In a BBC article, one of the traumatized participants Clay Ramsey states that “the best thing about it, is that it ended early” (Leithead, 2011). He believed that the experiment was not justified and that it should never have happened. If you look at some of the pictures taken from the experiment, it is hard to argue against Ramsey, yet Dr. Zimbardo claims that his work managed to show that “human nature is not totally under the control of what we like to think as free will” and hence the experiment being justified. However, he doesn’t ever address the ethical issues at hand, thus leading us to believe that the students’ well-being was not one of his priorities in this experiment.
Ethics are vital in any type of research, as they help set boundaries as to what we can do and what we shouldn’t do. The Stanford experiment is a perfect example that demonstrates the consequences of crossing ethical boundaries.
Leithead, A 2011, ‘Stanford prison experiment continues to shock’, BBC News, 17th August, viewed 7th April 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-14564182