The twentieth century left an enormous legacy of controversial psychological research, and Milgram’s study was no exception. Indeed, the American psychologist Stanley Milgram’s series of 24 experiments was one of the most famous social psychology studies (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017). Milgram also conducted studies about conformity in Norway and France early in his career to understand people’s desire to belong to a group (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017). The later obedience experiment tested participants’ obedience to authority, requiring them to give an electric shock to learners who failed to recall the correct answer (Perry et al., 2020).
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This research was conducted more than half a century ago, but “the debate about the ethical, methodological, and theoretical issues of these experiments shows no signs of abating” (Griggs, 2017, p. 1). Furthermore, many questions revolve around the clarity of explanation of experimental design to the subjects and the degree of the participants’ belief of authenticity of the learners’ reactions (Perry et al., 2020). Although the methods and results of this experiment cannot be considered ethical, it helped social psychologists to understand some aspects of human psychology.
The Study of Obedience: Methodology and Results
The experimental setup of Milgram’s study was assessed by other researchers based on audio records retrieved from the archives. According to Gridley and Jenkins (2017), the psychologist aimed to understand through his research why the people of Germany agreed to participate in fascists’ cruel actions during World War II. In fact, Milgram’s interest was personal because he wanted to know how one person’s insane idea was realized by millions of followers (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017). The study was conducted on American participants who were told to administer a fake electric shock to other subjects who were giving wrong answers to questions.
Although all participants could hear the complaints and screams of learners being punished, many of them continued pushing the button until a specific limit. Indeed, the shocking outcome was that 40-65% agreed to the study’s terms, providing a 450-volt shock to the subjects (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017). These results were indicative of ordinary human predisposition “to obey authorities,” which explained people’s behavior during the war (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017, p. 11). The study demonstrated that this tendency is a feature of human nature, regardless of one’s ethnicity.
It is also crucial to mention that the firmer belief the participants had in the reality of this shock, the more disobedient they were to the instructions. Specifically, approximately 85% of people who thought it was an actual experiment were defiant to administer the shock (Perry et al., 2020).
Moreover, those who persistently followed the orders justified their actions because they were only following an authority’s directions despite understanding the harm inflicted on the subjects (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017). In fact, according to Milgram (1973), “the essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument,” and thus “no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions” (p. 76). It appears that the most critical finding was that desire to obey an authority can overshadow a person’s core moral values (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017). Overall, Milgram’s study became pivotal for several decades of discussions among social scientists about human behavior under particular circumstances.
Ethics of the Study
Many researchers raised the legitimacy and ethics of Milgram’s study of obedience because of the equivocal design and evaluation of results. Indeed, the details and purpose of the experiment were not articulated to the partakers, violating research ethics. However, ethical guidelines about informed consent and banning deception in social experiments were released by American Psychological Association only ten years after this study was performed (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017). Milgram was also criticized for constructing the study to preclude people from resisting (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017).
as little as 3 hours
To exemplify, when volunteers wanted to stop, they were receiving such notions as “you have no choice, you must continue,” proving that their choices were not the pure result of free will (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017, p. 68). Furthermore, it is often argued that people who participated, like the Nazis’ supporters, believed that they were contributing to a greater cause when inflicting pain to the subjects (Perry et al., 2020). In fact, the interpretation of this study varies, ranging from statements that justify it due to the importance of knowledge obtained to claims of its uselessness.
Ethical Issues Raised by Milgram’s Experiment
Despite the questionable design, this experiment raised two crucial ethical issues about humanity. The first question is why individuals agree to cause pain to others even though it may violate their internal values and beliefs? On the one hand, during this experiment, the partakers suspected that the pain was real and thus continued to higher electric shock voltages (Perry et al., 2020). On the other hand, they were not explicitly told that the learners’ reactions were fake. The second question is, can their obedience justify ordinary people’s actions during World War II to the authoritarian leader? Indeed, was he the only person responsible for those mass murders? Still, the outcome of this and other duplicate studies partially suggest that people can torture and murder under the authoritarian order (Perry et al., 2020).
For instance, the percentage of people who proceeded to higher voltages was greater in the experiments conducted in Rome, Princeton, South Africa, and Munich (Milgram, 1973). This issue is more complex because it forces humanity to admit that extreme forms of chauvinism become legitimate for people if they are provided with the potential benefits of the end goal.
Was the Experiment Justifiable?
It is hard to deny that Milgram’s study was reasonable because it gave a scientific explanation for some nations’ actions across history. This research contributed to developing ethical guidelines for social experiments and understanding human psychology to prevent future global disasters, like the 1940s holocaust (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017). However, the participants of this study experience shame and guilt for their decisions to hurt another human being under pressure from a presumed authoritative figure (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017). Undoubtedly, the partakers should have received full disclosure of the study’s details and facts.
Moreover, most Psychologists reject the population and ecological validity of Milgram’s findings because the participants were aware that they were under experimental conditions (Gridley and Jenkins, 2017). Still, these people were not threatened but instructed to continue; hence, their actions were dictated not only by experimenters but also by personal choices. Therefore, although Milgram failed to conduct a study per ethics rules, he revealed some critical aspects of human nature.
In summary, Milgram’s study of obedience strived to understand if authority’s orders influence people’s decision to harm another human being. His primary aim was to find an explanation for the agreeableness of ordinary Germans to the Nazi’s call to murder millions of people during World War II. However, this experiment was criticized by many social scientists because of doubtful methodology and results. For instance, the participants were not provided with the details of the study before it. Furthermore, they were perpetually told during the experiment about the lack of choice. It certainly violated research ethics, imposing emotional suffering on the partakers.
Still, this research showed that obedience and submission of responsibility are components of human nature, explaining German soldiers’ actions during the holocaust. Overall, Milgram’s experiment was justified even though it had an erroneous methodology and violated ethical principles.
Gridley, M. and Jenkins, W.J. (2017) An analysis of Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority: an experimental view. London: Macat International Ltd.
Griggs, R.A. (2017) ‘Milgram’s obedience study: a contentious classic reinterpreted’, Teaching of Psychology, 44(1), pp. 1-6. Web.
Milgram, S. (1973) ‘The perils of obedience’, Harper’s Magazine, 247, p. 62.
Perry, G., et al. (2020) ‘Credibility and incredulity in Milgram’s obedience experiments: a reanalysis of an unpublished test’, Social Psychology Quarterly, 83(1), pp. 1-19. Web.
Biello, D. (2011) ‘Coal fires burning bright’, Scientific American, 304, p. 14.