Is Stanley Milgram’s Study of Disobedience Considered Unethical? The Sides of Psychology

Photo Credit: Peter C. Baker   By Dr. Monique M. Chouraeshkenazi 

Photo Credit: Peter C. Baker 

By Dr. Monique M. Chouraeshkenazi 

         Based on the article and research, I believe Milgram’s study was unethical. The overall goal of this study was to determine if individual obedience is indicative of authoritative figures and it was predicated on levels of punishment completed in a research experiment. Considering the fashion of how the article was written, the experiment seemed to be hypothetical in nature, not knowing if it was an actual experiment conducted or a deceptive method to side with Milgram’s theory (my opinion). For example, the article stated Milgram crafted a “phony” shock generator and the experimenter and victims seemed to be actors (“Milgram, Stanley Behavioural Study of Obedience,” 1963). However, the experiment left to much confusion because there much ambiguity as to whether the process was the actual process: asking participants to role play different professions. Initially, the instruction seemed straightforward, with the teacher (participant) calling words and the learner memorizing such words. If the learner memorized the words correctly, the teacher moved on to the next pair. If the learner did not answer correctly, the teacher had to annotate the correct answers and then communicate the level of the punishment he would receive. According to the article, continual incorrect answers resulted in the increasement of voltage (Milgram, Stanley Behavioural Study of Obedience,” 1963).

            The experiment did not give any guidance from the learner to the teacher and no responses were given. The participants looked to the experimenter for guidance and subsequently, the learner would only pound on the wall, give no response, and would only speak when the shock was at a specific voltage. Results from the experiment found 65 percent of the participants obeyed (total of 40 individuals participated). I believe the experiment was unethical because I do not believe sufficient information was given prior to the experiment. I also believe participation was enticing due to payment and the credibility of the university. If you review the explanations at the end of the article, it is obvious the reasoning provides a sense of commitment, which I believe is more unreasonable. 

            Some participants stated that they did not know about the effects of punishment on learning and this is the indicator, to me, that there should have been a briefing prior to the experiment. If researchers and experimenters did so, I believe participants felt like they would have had more of an option to participate, rather than an obligation. Barry F. Singer, author of the Psychological Studies of Punishment, asks the following questions regarding experimental psychology, referencing punishment:

1). Is a deterministic science of behavior plausible?

2). Do explanations of human behavior in terms of stimulus and response really have any validity? (1970, p. 407). 

        I believe those are valid questions since participants do not know what they are getting into and are not prepared. With that said, would the results be valid? Are their actions of tension, fear, sweating, and so forth, accurate emotions? There were so many factors that were not considered when conducting this experiment. 

           My thoughts--, “…perhaps there was some conditioning prior to the experiment.” However, we do not know the details and if preparation for the experiment was conducive to the analysis and results. In my opinion, this is one of the disadvantages to psychology and science—we can theorize and make assumptions, but to ensure credibility, accuracy, and validity, it must be proven. Stimuli and responses are interesting concepts, and it is important that both are understood before anything is accomplished. Stimulus is an input and a response is an output, which one [stimulus] is predicated on the activation of senses while the other [response] is indicative of actions of the body (Indiana University, n.d.). The stimuli would have been predicated on “experimenter’s” actions in this study. For example, internal stimuli would have been the anxiousness and/or tension the participants felt when they did not know the answer and were shocked. It would also be the clenching and/or sweating, especially when the article stated concurrent incorrect answers increased the shock voltage, which is something the participant was not likely aware of. When the learner looked to the experimenter for guidance (there was no responses at a certain point and then at 315 voltages, the experimenter would give guidance), the participants’ internal stimuli were probably so intense that their responses influenced the experiment, possibly to the experimenter’s favor (because the experimenter wanted to prove that individuals respond/react to authoritative control). This research study, which was highly dependent upon stimuli and response, was also a neurological matter, in addition to psychology and science. Holland (2008) stated there is controversy on the specification of stimulus-stimulus associations concerning neural systems underlying such inferences of behavior. The author explained there are six distinctions between cognitive and S/R theories, but one I believe is relevant to this study is: the neurophysiological basis of learning; brain fields or receptor-effector connections. With this theory, it is hypothesized by American psychologist, Clark L. Hull that “all behavior, individual and social, moral and immoral, normal and psychopathic, is generated from the same primary laws and that the differences in the objective behavioral manifestations are due to differing conditions under which habits are set up and function” (1943, p. 1). In essence, I believe this goes back what was stated in the beginning—the experimenter possibly had some type of conditioning before the experiment, which would be indicative of how most of the participants obeyed authority, reacted, and/or the decisions made during the experiment that affects the analysis and results.

        As a Jew, I found this particular topic interesting because it is the first time I have reviewed a research study that allegedly painted a picture of Germans (Nazis) as “abnormal” to justify actions of the most heinous crimes against six million of a particular race, culture, and a people, not to mention the additional five million souls who died during this time. The claims are Germans were under specific control (Adolf Hitler) that justified their actions against a large population of people. In my opinion, the study attempted to acknowledge Germans, all-inclusively, to be conditioned under specific control and behavior during that era. But what about the Germans who did not support Nazism? Trueman (2015) noted there were Germans who opposed Nazism, which lasted from 1933 to 1945 and they sacrificed their lives to do so, understanding the consequences of defying Hitler. With that said, would it be feasible to use the Germans and Nazism as a justification for conducting this study? Milgram’s study wanted to prove that anyone under conditions of authoritarian control would have committed the same actions the Germans did during Holocaust. 

        Jiang, Chen, Sun, and Yang (2017) conducted a research study titled, The Relationship between Authoritarian Leadership and Employees’ Deviant Workplace Behaviors: The Mediating Effects of Psychological Contract Violation and Organization Cynicism. Results from the study found “the relationship between the authoritarian leadership and employees’ deviant workplace behaviors was mediated by organizational cynicism” (Jiang, Chen Sun, & Yang, 2017, p. 1). The relationship between employees and authoritarian behavior resulted in distrust between both parties, which affected behavioral patterns. Though Milgram’s study found 65 percent obeyed the rules during the experiment, and I agree severe authoritarian control can affect behavior, depending on the psychological background of an individual, I still believe the study was unethical. As previously mentioned, some participants who took part in the experiment explained they had very little knowledge on the effects of punishment through obedience, and as a result, they were not prepared for what was to happen during the process. With that said, it could have been Milgram’s intent to have participants in a state of confusion or uncertainty since possibly hesitating or anticipating could have affected the results. But if participants are not aware or understood what was expected of them, could the results from the experiments be reliable or valid? When reliability and validity are questioned, I believe the entire study can be questioned. Reliability is repetitively completing the experiment (University of California, n.d). For example, if Milgram completed the experiment again, would he have yielded the same results? Validity is the credibility of an experiment (University of California, n.d.). Were Milgram’s findings genuine based on how the experiment was conducted? I am curious to know your thoughts about how the experiment was conducted and the lack of guidance for the participants. Do you believe Milgram should have conducted the experiment in an alternate fashion?

          The participants were not fully aware of the instructions and process of the experiment, which could have possibly altered the results. Purposely or inadvertently leaving out details, which can be critical to a research study, can affect the analysis, interpretation, and recommendations of the results, impacting credibility and validity. I do not know how many times Milgram conducted this study, but I believe it should have been completed again, this time, giving all information of what to expect that way participants were aware and could make an informed decision on whether to continue or “bow out.” Ohlund and Yu emphasized repetition is very important by stating, “experiments really need replication and cross-validation at various times and conditions before the results can be theoretically interpreted with confidence” (n.d., para. 2). Milgram was in control the entire time and how his role in how the experiment was conducted, leading participants to continue when some of them really did not want to, was unethical. At that point, the experiment should have been stopped. Abuse, misuse, and unethical issues in the past are why there are strict protocol for conducting research on human beings today.

      I would like to know Milgram’s thought process when he conducted the study and what was the actual intent. The statement provokes questioning, “the initial idea may have been started with an ethical agenda…” once it was apparent that the experiment was unethical, was Milgram  aware and purposely continued his research? Or was the intent was to always be “ethical,” but some of the processes did not go as planned and he was too shamed to let the participants know things were going awry? According to Angell (2015) researchers are obligated to make scientific concessions when it comes to ethical matters on human subjects to maintain credibility, validity, and not take advantage or mentally/physically harm. I read an article on how Michael Shermer conducted Milgram’s study. He and his team followed the same protocol as Milgram, but the kicker was they told the participants they were auditioning for a reality show called What a Pain! I believe we all know about what people will go through to be on reality TV, especially at this day and age of social media, Internet, and instant stardom. Results showed opposite of Milgram’s stating, “contrary to Milgram’s conclusion that people blindly obey authorities to the point of committing evil deeds because we are so susceptible to environmental conditions, I [Shermer] saw in our subjects’ great behavioral reluctance and moral disquietude every step of the way” (Shermer, 2015, para. 2). What are the thoughts on the different behavior reactions between participants in the 1960s and those in twenty-first century? What are your thoughts that Shermer’s team conducted the experiment (“replicating the experiment”) and received different results than Milgram’s?


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