Milgram’s experiment, which was carried out in laboratory conditions, raises important ethical issues.
The social psychologist Stanley Milgram was interested in the brutality carried out ‘under orders’ during the Second World War and wanted to know how far people would obey orders in ordinary situations. Milgram found a cross-section of the population by advertising payment for taking part in an investigation into memory learning. Those tested were of both sexes, a range of ages, and from different parts of the community. Milgram tested them by putting each participant in an experimental situation. Participants were told they were involved in a teaching and learning situation and that they would ‘teach’ the ‘learner’ through inflicting punishment in the form of gradually increasing electric shocks.
The ‘teacher’ participant was seated in front of a machine with a line of switches labelled with steadily increasing voltages. The last of these switches were labelled: “Danger: Severe Shock” and “XXX”. Each time the ‘learner’ made a mistake, the participant was told to give the next shock, higher and higher until the last switch was reached. The ‘learner’ was in the next room, but the participant could still hear his reactions, both spoken objections and cries of pain. For the last few shocks the ‘learner’ was silent. When the participant refused or was reluctant to continue with the process, the experimenter, dressed in a white laboratory coat, ordered them to carry on.
In fact the participants were not delivering any real shocks, and the learner was really an actor who followed the same ‘script’ for each ‘teacher’. This actor was not visible to the participants, so they were left to come to their own conclusions about what was happening in the next room, based on cries of pain from the ‘learner’, asking the ‘teacher’ not to continue. Most participants obeyed the authority figure and , though some showed signs of considerable stress, 63% continued giving shocks right to the last switch.
- What do you think were the main advantages Milgram gained by using a laboratory experiment for his investigation?
- Referring to page 174 in the book, explain the ethical problems raised by this study, including the deception, distress and after-effects on those who took part and the the issue of informed consent.
- How far do you think this study keeps within the BSA Statement of Ethical Practice?
- Can the Milgram’s findings be generalised to what happens in life outside the laboratory? For example, do you think people would be more obedient or less obedient if they were given orders by a real boss or commanding officer?