Ethical principles

Discuss the ways in which the study upholds and breaks the BPS code of conduct, ethical principles. Can deviations be justified in this study”? In 1963 Stanley Milgram set out to investigate the nature of obedience in order to understand the inhumane acts committed by the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany; acts which were made possible by obedience on a grand scale. In experimental conditions he set out to see if subjects would administer electric shocks to another person simply because they were told to do so.

He selected 40 males between 20 and 40 years of age, obtained by a newspaper advertisement asking for volunteers for a study on learning and memory, they would be paid $4.50 for agreeing to take part. The experiment took place in a smart, well-appointed laboratory in Yale University. One nave subject and one victim (confederate) were used in each trial. They were told that that they were to take part in an experiment on learning in which one of them would be the ‘teacher’ and the other the ‘learner’.

The nave subject was asked to draw a slip of paper from a hat to determine which role they played. The draw was rigged so the na�ve subject was always the teacher. The learner was strapped to an ‘electric chair’ appliance and electrodes attached to his arms, and cream was applied to avoid blisters and burns. He was then told that although the shocks may be extremely painful they cause no permanent tissue damage. The teacher was the taken next door to administer the punishment.

The task of the teacher was to read a set of word pairs to the learner, and then read the first word of each pair together with four alternatives. The learner then indicated which of the four was correct by pressing one of four switches. The subject would then have to give a shock to each time the learner gave a wrong answer and to increase the intensity by one level with each wrong answer. The shocks ranged from ‘slight shock’ (15 volts) to ‘XXX’ (450 volts). In all trials the learner gave a predetermined number of wrong answers, the question was how far would ordinary citizens go to obeying such malevolent orders?

Milgrams experiments have created a storm of controversy that has continued for decades (Blass 1992; Miller 1986). On one level, its ethics have been heavily criticised (Baumrind 1964): Participants were deceived and exposed to stress, and risked long lasting negative effects to their self image, however Milgram countered this criticism suggesting that the research was so socially significant that the deception of participants can be warranted. So where does the experiment stand in comparison to the BPS code of conduct and ethical principles for conducting research with human participants?

There are several main principles that can be criticised here: Firstly consent, the subjects were not fully briefed about the main objectives of the study, or told that it would create Psychological dilemma or stress, so their full consent was not obtained. “The investigator should inform participants of all aspects of the research or intervention that might reasonably be expected to influence willingness to participate” Milgram failed to do this and was therefore guilty of disregarding the participant’s basic rights.

Furthermore 3.6 states, that “in a position of authority or influence over participants, they must not use their relationship to pressurise people to remain in an investigation” once again Milgram disregards the guideline by pushing his subjects as far as possible, and in several cases to the point of violent outrage. Milgram argued this point however by stating that “although the participants were told by the experimenter to continue, they were not physically held or attached” in fact they were more likely to have been restrained from leaving themselves, as most of them had never been in a psychological experiment before, therefore had little or no idea about the rights and expectations of experimenter and subject.

Another major principle sparking controversy was over deception, Milgram deceived his participants in a number of ways. Into the true purpose of the experiment, and if alerted to the actual objectives, may have been unwilling to take part. However the principles do admit “it may be impossible to study some psychological processes without withholding information about the true object of the study, or by misleading the participants”

Diana Baumrind severely criticised the ethics of his research in an essay produced for the A.P.A in 1964, suggesting, “Milgrams study, could have long lasting negative effects on subjects. When the hoax was revealed at the end of the experiment, they would feel foolish and used, also obedient subjects would have had to live with the realization that they would have shocked the victim if the procedure had been for real.”

However according to Miller (1986) Milgram had already pre-acknowledged this fact, and in a post experimental interview subjects were informed of the deceptions involved and were introduced to the “learner” in a spirit of “friendly reconciliation” Milgram actually went beyond the normal debriefing procedure, mailing to each subject, a thorough account of the basic research project, and a year after his initial experiment asked a psychiatrist to interview 40 of his subjects to determine whether the study had any possible injurious effects. This follow up revealed no indications of long term distress or traumatic reactions, in fact a survey conducted at the same time found that 84% of subjects had been glad to be in the experiment.

However Milgram still clearly approached the limits and in the view of some, exceeded the limits, specifically in terms of respecting the participants right to withdraw. He blatantly challenged this right, particularly in the use of increasingly constraining “prods” for those subjects hesitating to continue punishment. Prod 1 “please continue” Prod 2 “the experiment requires that you continue” Prod 3 “it is absolutely essential that you continue” Prod 4 “you have no choice you must go on.”

According to Miller, it is these prods that are, in an important sense, a fundamental methodological feature in Milgrams paradigm of obedience. Prods 3 and 4 in particular distinguish this type of experiment from all other studies of social influence, for these are literally commands or orders that, if obeyed, ultimately resulted in the learner appearing to receive intolerable pain. This was described by Milgram as a creation of “extreme tension” in the minds of the subjects and was caused by a constant awareness of the experimenter versus feelings of guilt towards the victim and a recurring desire to withdraw from the experiment, which they believed was unquestionable.

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