Tuskegee syphilis studies and the Zimbardo Prison Experiment – Critical Analysis and Comparison of Scientific Researches


            There are numerous scientific researches that have been conducted, and most of these researches involved human population in one way or the other. The scientific researches that involve human population must always be carried out in accordance to a codes of ethics of research (Pierce, 2007). These ethics of scientific research were developed in order to ensure the researchers protected the rights, dignity and the welfare of the research participants. However, some social research studies that have been carried have involved unethical experimentations, and have been controversial in nature. The paper makes a critical analysis and comparison of the Tuskegee syphilis studies and the Zimbardo Prison Experiment.

Tuskegee Syphilis Studies

            The Tuskegee syphilis study program was a government sponsored experiment that ran for forty years in the county of Macon, Alabama in the middle of the 20th century (Blitz, 2014). Syphilis is a disease that had been in existence for years and the attempts to create its remedy led to fatalities since the available cures were mostly poisonous metallic compounds. However, in 1881, the Tuskegee University that was established in order to offer higher education to the slaves, who were majority inhabitants of the Tuskegee, Alabama, would later be involved in the research that sought to find the vaccine for the disease.  

            In the early part of the 20th century, the government of the United States had developed the Public Health Service, which was in charge of diagnosis, treatment and prevention of diseases that affected the United States citizens (Blitz, 2014). In 1929-1931, the Rosenwald Fund, which promoted education and health care promotions among the poor African-Americans, sponsored a study that was carried out by the Public Health Service, to determine the extent of the syphilis menace in the Southern counties. Initially, the objective was the identification and treatment of the disease. However, the great depression struck in the 1931 and the Rosenwald Fund was unable to sustain the funding of the PHS. Therefore, the PHS approached the Tuskegee University about the possibility of the two organizations forming a study group in order to investigate the effects of untreated syphilis among the male population in Macon County, which had the highest rates of infections.

            The study involved an enrollment of six-hundred Macon county men, from which 399 men had been infected with syphilis, while 201 were free from syphilis (Blitz, 2014). One striking ethical aspect of the study was that none of the participants knew what the objective of the study was. Most of the participants had been lured into participation with the promise of free health care, which was not offered to the African-Americans and the cure for “bad blood”, a term that was used to refer to ailments such as anemia, and other venereal ailments. Other promises that were used to entice the men into participating included free burial insurance, free medical exams and meals. The researchers used deception in order to have a large sample of population and ensure that the participants remained in the study group.

 Moreover, the participants who had the disease were never informed of their diagnosis nor were they treated (Blitz, 2014). Many unnecessary and painful spinal taps were also carried on many of the participants in the field. In addition, the researchers took advantage of the fact that most of the participants were illiterate and it would have been hard for them to know the main reasons behind the research study. Similarly, there was documentation of racial prejudice amongst the researchers. Thus the researchers, did a total disregard of protection of the participants who based on the description of the samples, they formed a vulnerable group. The study would go on for over the initially intended nine months due the breakthroughs. Finally, although penicillin was discovered, none of the participants was offered the treatment as the administrators wanted to monitor the progression of the disease and the subjects would be observed, as they got sick until their death.

Zimbardo Prison Experiment

            In a study to determine the major cause of brutalities in the United States prisons, Zimbardo performed a study in order to determine whether the brutality amongst the guards was situational or dispositional (emanating from the guard sadistic behaviors) (McLeod, 2008). In order to determine the effects of a prison cell on the behavior of prison guards and prisoners, Zimbardo,converted the basement of the Stanford University into a mock prison cell. A total of 75 students volunteered and after subjecting them to psychological screening, 24 male students were eventually selected and paid to participate for the study, which was to take place for a fortnight.

            The participants were randomly selected and assigned the roles of prison guards and prisoners (Zimbardo, Maslach, & Froming, 2012). The prisoners were treated just like criminals, being arrested from their homes without warning and the guards worked in shifts. Zimbardo, while acting as a researcher observed the behaviors of the prisoners and the guards. Within a short time, prisoners and guards had settled into their roles. The guards begun to adopt sadistic behaviors and begun to mistreat the prisoners, while prisoners begun to be aggressive and one had to set free after 36 hours because of the uncontrolled cries, bursts and screaming.

Similarities and Differences between the Two Studies

            The Tuskegee and the Zimbardo studies involved studies of human subjects under control experiments. The Tuskegee study was carried using the patients with syphilis and those without the disease as the control sample. On the other hand, the Zimbardo study involved the students who were randomly selected in order to determine the impact of prison environment on the prison guard behaviors. Whereas the Zimbardo study exercised random selection of the participants, who were informed about the study, the Tuskegee study did not randomly select its study participants nor did it obtain any consent form them. Moreover, the participants in the Tuskegee study were coerced and promised money and burial insurance for participating in the study. Unlike the Zimbardo study, which exercised participant protection, the Tuskegee study exercised no regard of participant protection despite the fact that they constituted vulnerable population.

Ethical Principles in the Case Studies

            The Tuskegee syphilis study has a number of ethical principles that were never observed. First, the study involved subjects that were not randomly selected. The control population and the participants who suffered from syphilis were just coerced and deception used in order for them to form part of the study sample. The study failed to adhere to the ethics of research, which demands the protection of the rights of the study sample (Daugherty-Brownrigg, 2012). Moreover, the selection of the population was not randomly drawn but based only on a specific population that consisted of only poor African-Americans. Furthermore, the researchers failed to seek the consent of the participants, taking advantage of the illiteracy of the participants to make them part of the study population. In doing so, the researchers totally disregarded the rights and welfare of the participants. For example, the participants who were free from syphilis were injected with the virus without any explanation that the injection was meant for study purposes.

            In contrast, the Zimbardo prison experiment adopted a different strategy that was guided by the ethics of social research. In the study sample selection, Zimbardo obtained the consent of the participants by giving them a detailed description of the purposes of the study (Haney & Zimbardo, 2008). Moreover, the study samples were randomly selected and thus giving every individual and equal chance of being part of the study sample. These strategies ensured that the rights of the participants were observed. In fact, unlike the Tuskegee study, in which the participants were not treated despite the discovery of the vaccine, the Zimbardo prison experiment had to be terminated when it was found that it had degenerated into a bad condition and some participants whose behaviors had become uncontrollable were removed from the experiment.

The Success of the Strategies in the Two Case Studies

The Zimbardo prison study was successful owing to use of better research strategies of random selection and proper explanation of research purpose to the participants. However, the Tuskegee research study failed to attain better results since the whole study led to fatalities and the researchers were not able to treat the participants who were left to death due the need for continued observation even after death. After all, the research deemed the promise of burial insurance amongst the participants was enough for the study participants. The failure by the Tuskegee researchers to observe the research ethics led them into violating the rights of the participants and thus did not offer any treatment to the participants who suffered the disease, even despite the discovery of its cure. The studies that were later carried after the Tuskegee syphilis research showed that majority of the African-Americans were less willing to participate in the future research that involved clinical trials as compared to the whites, owing to the incidents of the Tuskegee research study.

Alternate Strategies That Might Also Have Been Used To Achieve the Same or Better Results

            The research ethics demand the protection of the rights and welfare of the research study participants (Pierce, 2007). The syphilis study among the minority groups in the Tuskegee would have adopted the research ethics that involves seeking of the consent of the participants before being involved in the study. The participants would have been informed about the intention of the study and the possible implications in order to allow them to make informed decisions. Furthermore, the participants would need to selected randomly in an open and free manner devoid of coercion and bribery. In doing so, the study would achieve better results and would not attract any negative publicity and future skepticism of participation in other studies.

The Case Study that Represents a Better Implementation of Research Ethics

            The Zimbardo prison study achieved better observation of research ethics since the participants were randomly selected and subjected to psychological tests to determine their fitness for the intended study. Moreover, the study exercised study participants protection, for example, when it was observed that some participants had displayed aggression, they were withdrawn. However, the Tuskegee study violated research ethics through adoption of coercion, deceit in recruitment of research participants and use of participants without their informed consent (Engelhardt, 2007). Furthermore, the study population represented vulnerable sample, which demanded better protection. For example, the study participants were not given any treatment, but left to die despite the fact that the syphilis vaccine had been discovered. The researchers valued the study other than the protection of the research participants.

The Ethical, Practical, and Political Consequences of These Cases for the Researchers, Participants, and the Social Groups

            The manner in which the Tuskegee study was carried out has been a subject of great debate to date. The United States government was forced to offer an apology to the victims of the study and the state offered to provide free medical insurance cover to the participants who still survived and their descendants, which still runs to date (CDC, 2013). The study raised serious bioethical implications even for future studies, where there is shrewd regard to study that involve human subjects among the African-Americans. Moreover, the study has been a subject of great scrutiny and criticism from the social groups and the researchers for failure to stick to principles of bioethics.


The Tuskegee and Zimbardo studies represent two cases studies that employed studies on human population. However, the two studies exhibit glaring differences in the manner in which the studies protected the rights and welfares of the research participants. The Tuskegee study has been cited by many researchers for the violation of rights of study population and lack of regard for bioethics. In contrast, the Zimbardo experiment was able to achieve better results owing to its random selection of the study sample and obtaining of participant concept.

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