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Using Zimardo's SPE for AS91873 analyse the significance of a key piece of research



This achievement standard involves analysing the significance of a key piece of research and its impact on society. When considering the significance and impact, learners could discuss the impact of Zimbardo's results on;

  • prison reform,

  • influence on other studies,

  • ethical implications

  • Zimbardo's involvement as defense for Abu Ghraib


The experiment's results and subsequent discussions contributed to prison system reform in the following ways:

  1. Awareness of Abuse of Power: The experiment brought attention to the potential for guards to abuse their authority and mistreat prisoners. The guards in the experiment engaged in dehumanising and abusive behaviors, reflecting how power dynamics can lead to cruelty and exploitation in real-life prison settings.

  2. Institutional Reforms: The experiment's findings prompted discussions about the need to reform correctional institutions. It shed light on the importance of oversight, accountability, and transparency in prison administration to prevent the potential for unchecked abuse by those in positions of authority.

  3. Training for Prison Personnel: The experiment highlighted the significance of proper training for prison personnel to prevent the mistreatment of inmates. It emphasised the importance of creating a culture of respect and professionalism among correctional officers to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners.

  4. Prisoner Rights and Rehabilitation: The experiment contributed to discussions about the rights and treatment of prisoners. It encouraged reevaluation of punitive approaches in favor of rehabilitation and programmes aimed at addressing the underlying causes of criminal behavior, which is essential for successful reintegration into society.

  5. Public Awareness: The experiment garnered substantial media coverage and public attention. This increased awareness about the potential for abuse within the prison system led to public discussions and demands for accountability and reform.

  6. Legal Reforms: The experiment's results influenced legal discussions surrounding prisoner rights and the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. It prompted debates about whether certain prison conditions and practices amounted to psychological abuse.

To ensure depth in explanation learners should link these points to direct observations made in the experiment.



Zimbardo's SPE influencing other pieces of research

Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment (SPE) had a notable impact on subsequent researchers, inspiring some to replicate the study to further explore the dynamics of authority and power within a simulated prison environment. One such replication was the BBC Prison Study, conducted in 2002 by a team of researchers. However, the results of the BBC Prison Study differed from Zimbardo's original experiment, shedding light on the limitations and controversies surrounding Zimbardo's study.


BBC Prison Study vs. Zimbardo's Experiment:

The BBC Prison Study aimed to replicate and build upon the findings of Zimbardo's experiment but encountered significant differences:

  1. Duration: While Zimbardo's SPE lasted for two weeks, the BBC Prison Study was significantly shorter, lasting only six days. This shorter duration might have limited the extent to which participants' behavior could develop or escalate as it did in the original study.

  2. Participant Disposition: In the BBC study, participants reportedly exhibited a greater skepticism about the study's authenticity and questioned the intentions of the researchers. This skepticism influenced their responses and behavior, potentially leading to a different dynamic compared to Zimbardo's participants, who were more accepting of the simulation.

  3. Moderating Factors: The BBC study made an effort to introduce interventions to mitigate the negative effects on participants, such as regular debriefing sessions. This might have affected the intensity of the power dynamics and the potential for participants to fully internalize their roles as guards and prisoners.

Implications for Zimbardo's Study:

The differences in outcomes between the BBC Prison Study and Zimbardo's original SPE suggest that the results of the latter study might have been influenced by a combination of factors, including the prolonged duration of the experiment, the participants' disposition and expectations, and the lack of interventions to safeguard participants' well-being.

These differences highlight the complexity of conducting psychological experiments and the need for cautious interpretation of results. They also underscore the importance of considering ethical considerations, transparency, and the potential long-term effects on participants when conducting studies that involve simulating harmful or abusive environments. Overall, the replication attempts, such as the BBC Prison Study, prompted a critical examination of Zimbardo's work and led to valuable discussions about the ethical boundaries and implications of such research.


Implication on the World of Research EthicsZimbardo's Stanford prison experiment (SPE) had a profound and lasting impact on psychology research ethics. The study's controversial outcomes highlighted the need for stricter ethical guidelines and considerations when conducting psychological experiments involving human participants. The experiment's ethical shortcomings directly led to changes in research practices and the establishment of safeguards to protect participants from potential harm.



Significance of Zimbardo's Experiment on Psychology Research Ethics:

  1. Informed Consent: Zimbardo's study emphasised the importance of obtaining informed consent from participants before their involvement in research. The experiment's participants were not fully aware of the potential psychological distress they could experience, which raised concerns about their ability to make an informed decision about participating.

  2. Deception and Debriefing: The experiment involved significant levels of deception, as participants were not fully informed about the nature of the study and the potential consequences. This raised ethical questions about the use of deception and underscored the importance of thorough debriefing after the study to ensure that participants understood the true nature of the research.

  3. Participant Well-Being: The study revealed that participants experienced significant emotional distress and psychological harm. This highlighted the need for researchers to prioritise the well-being of participants and minimise the potential negative effects of their involvement in studies.

  4. Power Imbalance: The power dynamics between researchers and participants were evident in the experiment, with participants feeling pressured to conform to roles and behaviours that they might not have naturally adopted. This highlighted the ethical responsibility of researchers to maintain a balanced and respectful relationship with participants.

Direct Impacts of Zimbardo's Experiment on Ethics:

  1. Ethics Review Boards: The controversy surrounding the SPE played a role in the establishment and strengthening of institutional review boards (IRBs) or ethics committees. These boards are responsible for evaluating research proposals to ensure that they meet ethical standards and do not pose harm to participants.

  2. Informed Consent Standards: Zimbardo's study led to clearer and more stringent guidelines for obtaining informed consent from participants. Researchers are now required to provide detailed information about the study, its purpose, potential risks, and participants' rights before they agree to participate.

  3. Deception Guidelines: The ethical concerns raised by the deception used in the SPE prompted researchers to adopt guidelines on the appropriate use of deception. Deception is now considered acceptable only if there is no alternative way to conduct the study and if the potential benefits outweigh the potential harm to participants.

  4. Debriefing Practices: Zimbardo's experiment highlighted the necessity of thorough debriefing after the study to inform participants of the true nature of the research, address any concerns or emotional distress, and ensure that they leave the study without lingering negative effects.

  5. Ethical Training: The controversy surrounding the SPE contributed to the recognition of the need for ethical training for researchers, emphasising the importance of understanding and adhering to ethical principles in psychological research.

To explain in depth the learner would need to identify exactly what aspects of the study was unethical and link to the points above.



Zimbardo as a Defense for a Soldier who work in Abu Ghraib Prison


Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment (SPE) played a crucial role in the legal defence of a soldier involved in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. The study's findings had significant implications for understanding how situational factors and authority dynamics can lead individuals to engage in unethical and harmful behaviours. These insights were drawn upon to argue that the soldier's actions at Abu Ghraib were influenced by the environment, systemic factors, and orders from higher-ranking officials rather than being solely attributed to inherent character flaws or malicious intent.


In the Abu Ghraib scandal, which came to light in 2003, photographs and reports revealed shocking instances of prisoner mistreatment and abuse at the hands of American military personnel in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. One of the arguments raised in the legal defence of some soldiers involved was that they were following orders from higher-ups and that the abusive behaviour was a result of the environment and power dynamics present within the prison.


The connection to Zimbardo's SPE was made because the experiment demonstrated how ordinary individuals, when placed in positions of authority or subjected to a certain environment, can engage in dehumanising and abusive behaviours. The guards in Zimbardo's study quickly adopted roles that led to extreme behaviours, even though they were not inherently sadistic or aggressive individuals. This raised the question of whether the soldiers at Abu Ghraib were similarly influenced by the power dynamics and authority present in a military environment, ultimately leading to their involvement in the abuse of prisoners.


In the legal proceedings, Zimbardo was called as an expert witness to provide insights into the potential impact of situational factors on behaviour. His testimony highlighted the power of social situations to shape individuals' actions and the potential for ordinary people to commit acts they might never have engaged in under different circumstances. This testimony was used to argue that the soldiers' actions were not solely indicative of their personal character but were instead a product of the environment, system, and orders they were exposed to.



In summary, Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment and its findings were drawn upon in the legal defence of a soldier involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal. The study's emphasis on the role of authority, power dynamics, and situational factors in influencing behaviour contributed to the argument that the soldiers' actions were a result of the environment they were in rather than an inherent aspect of their character. This case underscores the broader implications of Zimbardo's research for understanding human behaviour in real-world contexts, particularly within situations of authority and power.


To explain in depth the Learner should make direct comparison from Zimbardo's SPE to what happened in Abu Ghraib


A helpful video to explain the significance is the Ted Talk: The psychology of evil







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