Magoosh GRE

Critically discuss a classic experiment from the history of psychology. What, if any, relevance does it have to the present day?

| November 2, 2012 | 0 Comments


The Stanford Prison Experiment is a famous experiment which placed two groups of volunteers in a prison-like situation, some playing the role of guards and the others playing the role of prisoners. The volunteers became so involved with their roles that the experiment was terminated prematurely. These startling results bring to light certain interesting predispositions of human behaviour which have a lot of relevance today. The results show that power has the ability to corrupt people to an alarming level. They also show that people find it difficult to dissociate from a role and look at their behaviour objectively. In all areas of life this particular lesson is pertinent and points to a need for increased levels of self-reflection and independent thought in society in general. 

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted in 1971, and its startling results have been analysed and discussed fervently since its premature termination. The experiment placed two groups of volunteers in a prison-like environment; with one group instructed to play the role of guards and the other to play the role of prisoners. Many of the volunteers, however, became so involved in their roles that the investigation had to be terminated prematurely. Many of the guards began to treat the prisoners with startling levels of brutality, giving a stark insight into the darker aspects of human nature. This discussion will analyse what these results say about human nature as a whole, and any relevance they may have to behaviour and situations in the world today.

An initial conclusion which might be taken from this experiment is that power has a tendency to corrupt people. As the guards were in the position of power, some elected to abuse this power and behave in a fashion which might have been contrary to their ordinary inclinations. This is something which should be taken into account when police or guards working in authentic correctional facilities are trained. This type of effect can also be seen in cases where prisoners of war are treated in a brutal manner by their fellow human beings, who happen to be in a position of power relative to them. Deplorable behaviour such as this may be attributable to a general lack of independence of thought combined with a person being put in a position of power.

Something else we can learn from the study is that our roles appear to have the power to define our behaviour. For example, there are many incidents on record in which police have been unnecessarily vicious in their treatment of arrestees. In the experiment both the guards and the prisoners exhibited this effect. This over-identification with a role can have negative consequences in all areas of life. One example might be a counsellor being overly patronising to a patient purely because they are taking the role of counsellor and forgetting that they are also a human being with flaws. If people were more inclined to reflect upon their behaviour, thus dissociating themselves from their role, behaviour might be more balanced and thoughtful in many areas of life.

A worrying consequence of this study is that the behaviour of the masses seems to be, to a large extent, fairly predictable. This makes it easy for parties, who may not have our best interests at heart, to manipulate us as a species, which is alarming and thought-provoking. This is something which should always be borne in mind when we encounter new laws and regulations issuing from positions of power.

Overall, the relevance of this study to today seems to be that people would greatly benefit from objective reflection upon their sense of independence and identity. Regardless of the era you live in, efforts to be more conscious of your behaviour can empower and protect people.



Haney, C., Banks, C., & Zimbardo, P.G. (1973). ‘Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison’. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, vol.1, pp.69-97.

Discuss the relative values of drug treatments and ‘talking therapies’ for depression in the NHS, with reference to current health policies.



Depression is a powerful illness which affects many people worldwide. Treatment of the condition must be able to be cost-effective and provide good results. Antidepressants alter the chemicals within the brain to improve the moods of a patient, but do not necessarily get to the root of the problem. On the other hand, talking therapy has been shown to be at least as effective as drug treatment and, indeed, a cheaper alternative. Nevertheless, for severe and moderate cases the current NHS policy of combination treatment seems to be sensible, as the drugs can improve a patient in the short term whilst the talking therapy attempts to tackle the cause of the condition.

Depression is a malady which can be extremely detrimental to one’s quality of life. It affects moods and can significantly shift the afflicted person’s perception of almost anything; from people or activities to the very idea of life itself. As such, it is important that there are measures put in place to treat effectively as many cases as possible.

There are a variety of different methods typically implemented today to deal with depression; a talking point of particular interest concerns the relative benefits of pharmacological treatment and ‘talking therapy’ treatment. Owing to the ubiquity of depression, the best treatment must be able to strike a balance between proven results, cost-effectiveness and ease of application.

Antidepressants are drugs which may be issued to somebody with depression; they work by altering certain chemical imbalances in the brain which are associated with negative emotions and moods. Thus, they can certainly help to alleviate some of the symptoms of depression. In theUSantidepressants are extremely common as a treatment (ANTONUCCIO, DANTON & DENELSKY, 1995), yet research is showing that on their own they may not be the most effective route toward treating the condition (BLACKBURN, BISHOP, GLEN, WHALLEY, CHRISTIE, 1981). Aside from issues such as side-effects and a relatively high level of relapses (GLOAGUEN ET AL, 1998), a drawback of drug-related treatment of depression concerns whether or not it is really getting to the source of the problem.

Conversely, ‘talking therapy’ such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) aims to address the cause of depression directly and involves reflection and effort on the part of the afflicted. It certainly seems logical that if the cause of a case of depression is easy to pinpoint, attempting to change the perception of this problem will have better effects than merely trying to alter the chemical balance of the brain. Indeed, research has shown that the approach of CBT concords with the neurological basis of the condition (CLARK & BECK, 2010).

The extension of this logic to all cases of depression is the basis of talking therapy. Studies have shown that CBT appears to be at least as effective as drug treatment (ANTONUCCIO ET AL, 1995).

However, this is not to say that antidepressants do not have their place. Currently, the NHS policy is that for severe and moderate depression the person will undergo a combination of antidepressants and talking therapy. This approach seems to make sense, as in severe cases the change in neurotransmitter levels may allow someone to feel better about their situation whilst the talking therapy attempts to get to the root of the problem.

However, research has shown that antidepressants are significantly more costly than talking therapy, even when it is one-to-one treatment rather than in a group (ANTONUCCIO, THOMAS & DANTON,1997). Taking this information into account, in conjunction with the undesirable side-effects and possible superficiality of pharmacology as a treatment for depression, it seems that talking therapy may be preferable as a general treatment.

However, as attempts to understand more about the exact causes of depression continue, advances in our thinking regarding both the psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological sides of the treatment of depression may change the conclusion of discussions such as this one.



Clark, D. & Beck, A. (2010) ‘Cognitive theory and therapy of anxiety and depression: Convergence with neurobiological findings’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol.14, no.9, pp. 418-424

Gloaguen, V. Cottraux, J. Cucherat, M. Blackburn, I. (1997) ‘A meta-analysis of the effects of cognitive therapy in depressed patients’, Journal of Affective Disorders, vol.49, no.1, pp. 59-72

Blackburn, I. Bishop, S. Glen, A. Whalley, L. Christie, J. (1981) ‘The efficacy of cognitive therapy in depression: a treatment trial using cognitive therapy and pharmacotherapy, each alone and in combination’, The British Journal of Psychology, vol.139, no.3, pp.181-189

Antonuccio, D. Thomas, M. Danton, W. (1997), ‘A cost-effectiveness analysis of cognitive behavior therapy and fluoxetine (prozac) in the treatment of depression’, Behavior Therapy, vol.28, no.2, pp.187-210

Antonuccio, D. Danton, W. DeNelsky, G (1995), ‘Psychotherapy versus medication for depression: Challenging the conventional wisdom with data’, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, vol. 26, pp. 574–585


Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, Psychology Essay Examples

Ask a question about this article

You must be logged in to post a comment.