The Milgram Obedience Study: Was it Really Unethical?

By: Fahad Salman

(Photo Source: BrainPundit)

The following article reflects my personal opinions regarding the Milgram Obedience Study and is not reflective of any other entity. I have included references at the end of the article if you would like to further research the topic and formulate your own opinions.

In 1963, the Milgram experiment was conducted to examine the justification for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the Nuremberg War Criminal trials following World War II. The defense of the accused was that they were simply being obedient and following orders from superiors. 


Stanley Milgram decided to test how easily ordinary citizens could be influenced by a higher authority to commit atrocities. The experimenters recruited around 40 men using newspaper ads and compensated them financially for participating in the experiment. 


The experimenters assigned each participant the role of “teacher” and told them to ask the “student," a paid actor, certain questions. If the student failed to answer it correctly, the teacher had to administer a shock to the student. After each wrong answer, the shock level incrementally increased, from 15V to 450V. A supervisor was present at the scene to ensure the teacher was following orders. As the experiment proceeded, the student answered many questions incorrectly and the shock level was accordingly increased, and as the shock was administered, the student shouted and pleaded in pain. Above a certain shock-level, he banged on the wall and demanded to be released from the experiment, but the supervisor instructed the teacher to continue. This experiment was repeated multiple times with different scenarios, with the student sitting in different proximities to the teacher, either nearby or in another room. The purpose of the experiment was to test whether the teacher would continue to hurt the student just because the supervisor told him to continue doing so. 


The results revealed that, contrary to the predictions of psychiatrists, a majority of participants continued to administer the highest level of shock, regardless of the student’s pleas. Despite participants’ unwillingness to do so, as evidenced by the tension on their faces, many still administered the shock because they did not want to disobey the supervisor. This experiment was vital as it plainly provided evidence of the impact of authority on ordinary people. 


There is ongoing debate about whether the Milgram experiment was ethical. Opponents argue that because participants were not informed of the experiment’s topic beforehand, it inflicted mental stress and anxiety to the participants. 


I personally do not deem the experiment as unethical because it was entirely academic and no one was physically hurt. It used a blinding technique common to experiments in various fields, such as healthcare. Moreover, to assure that participants were not psychologically harmed, Milgram created a safe space after the experiment where the student was brought before the teacher to prove that no physical harm was inflicted. In addition, the researcher reached out to participants after a few years and made sure that they were doing well mentally to ensure that the experiment did not have any long-term effects on them.  


The Milgram experiment was not representative of the general population because it only consisted of White adult males, who responded to a mail invitation or newspaper ad. So, in terms of research design, the experiment may be flawed, but I believe it is ethically sound. 


To further dive into the experiment, watch The Milgram Experiment 1962 Documentary of the subjects’ actual responses.


If you are curious about whether such an experiment could be conducted in today’s day and age, and what sort of response that would elicit, check out The Milgram Experiment | Jerry Burger | SCU 2007

References:

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