Critically discuss a classic experiment from the history of psychology (e.g. the Milgram Obedience Experiment, the Stanford Prison experiment).
What, if any, relevance does it have to the present day?
Stanley Milgram’s obedience study (1963) has been extremely influential in psychology. Milgram investigated human’s willingness to obey authority figures and instructions. He found that 65 per cent of the research subjects followed instructions from an experimenter and administered the highest voltage shock possible to a learner, even when they were uncomfortable in doing so (Milgram, 1963). This finding contributed to theories in psychology. Milgram’s method of conducting the experiment raised questions around ethics as deception was employed and the participants were distressed. This lead to the consideration of what is ethically acceptable and guidelines which protect participants being developed. These guidelines are in place today and therefore have an impact on the way in which current psychological research is conducted.
Stanley Milgram’s Obedience experiment (1963) is thought of as a ‘classic’ experiment in the history of psychology. It was conducted in response to the Nazi war trials where individuals claimed that they were ‘just following orders’. Milgram attempted to investigate if people would follow orders even if they felt that they were morally wrong.
Milgram’s study is well known for both its results and its means of obtaining them. Ethical issues were raised, which have relevance to today’s psychological research practice, with regards to the method the study employed. This essay will firstly outline Milgram’s Obedience Study, then it will discuss the ethical issues which were raised and it will look at the overall relevance that the experiment has in the present day.
Milgam was interested in researching how individuals would respond to figures of authority when they were given instructions to do something that they did not feel comfortable doing. Participants for the study were recruited through a newspaper advert to take part in an experiment on learning and teaching methods. When they came to the laboratory the researcher showed them a device that was used to punish people who gave incorrect answers by means of an electric shock. The participant was meant to be the teacher and they were told that an individual in another room was the learner. The participant or teacher met the learner (who was privy to the true nature of the experiment) and witnessed the electrodes being strapped to their wrists. The learner expressed a degree of fear and questioned whether the shock would have any impact on their heart condition. The researcher told them that this was not something to worry about but they did inform them that the shocks could be extremely painful. During the learning session the teacher and learner were in different rooms and they communicated via intercom. The researcher told the teacher to increase the shock each time an incorrect answer was given. Regardless of uncertainty on behalf of the teacher, protests from the learner and latterly no sound at all from the learner, the researcher still instructed the teacher to administer the highest voltage possible. 65 per cent of the participants followed instructions and administered the highest voltage shock to the learner (Milgram, 1963).
Following the experiment participants were debriefed and they were informed that the shock apparatus was not real and that the protests from the learners were scripted. Many of the subjects expressed emotional upset as they thought that they were inflicting immense pain on another person and that the high voltage shocks that they apparently administered had the capacity to kill somebody. Milgram was criticised as being ‘insensitive to his subjects’ (Baumrind, 1964).
This study highlights ethical issues which are relevant in the present day. Perhaps Milgram could have tested his ideas on obedience without causing distress to his subjects. His experiment illuminates issues around deception. Deception occurs when subjects are not clearly and fully informed about the nature of the research (Glassman and Hadad, 2004). Milgram’s study influenced the current ethical guidelines that are in place and it is thought that his study would not be permitted now (Weiten, 2006). Modern ethical standards assert that participants must not be deceived, and that they must be told of any possible consequences. Guidelines stipulate that participants must take part on a voluntary basis and that they are free to withdraw at any point, that they are debriefed following the study and that there is an acceptable outcome of the research without harm being caused to subjects (British Psychological Society, 2009). It is thought that under these conditions no hurt can be caused to the participant. It may be argued that Milgram’s study influenced the way that Psychologist’s conduct their current research as it changed research ethics and design, whilst contributing greatly to theory in psychology.
It becomes clear that a great deal can be learnt from past research, Milgram’s study informed the field of social psychology in terms of theories on obedience and authority (Benjamin and Simpson, 2009). In addition to this, in response to what would now be seen as unethical methods, a change in the way in which Psychologist’s work emerged as new guidelines regarding the treatment of research participants were developed. As such this experiment is relevant to the present day psychology in many respects.
Baumrind, D. (1964). “Some thoughts on the ethics of research: After reading Milgram’s ‘Behavioral Study of Obedience.’” American Psychologist, Vol. 19, pp. 421-423.
Benjamin, L.T and Simpson, J.A. (2009) ‘The power of the situation: The impact of Milgram’s obedience studies on personality and social psychology’. American Psychologist, Vol. 64(1), pp. 12-19.
British Psychology Society, (2009). Code of Ethics and Conduct 2009 [Online]. Available from http://www.bps.org.uk/the-society/code-of-conduct/ [Accessed: 26 May 2011].
Glassman, W.E and Hadad, M. (2004). Approaches to Psychology. Birkshire, UK: Open University Press.
Milgram, Stanley (1963). “Behavioral Study of Obedience”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 67 (4), pp. 371–378.
Weiten, W. (2006). Psychology: Themes and Variations. California: Wadsworth Publishing Co Inc.