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This paper critically examines a study that was conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale University between 1960 and 1963 to investigate how far individuals could go in obeying immoral orders from a figure of authority. Milgram chose Yale University to give his study an element of legitimacy since it involved a sensitive experiment.
The study yielded mixed results but effectively answered the underlying question. It has been overly criticised for breaching the established ethical code. Nonetheless, it remains one of the landmark studies in the field of psychology.
This paper is a critical analysis of a study that was conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale University between 1960 and 1963 to evaluate a claim made by war crime suspects during the Nuremberg trials.
They asserted that the heinous atrocities for which they were standing trial had been perpetrated in obedience to orders from their seniors (McLeod, 2007). Milgram enlisted the assistance of Alan C. Elms and Jon Wayland to complete the study (Milgram,1963). At the experimental level, however, a high school teacher of biology assumed the experimenter’s role (Milgram,1974).
The study took place in the Social Interaction Laboratory at Yale University (Milgram, 1963). Yale University was a perfect location for the study since the institution has an impeccable reputation (Bocchairo & Zimbardo, 2010). This reputation lent the study as an element of legitimacy in the sight of the subjects. Therefore, the sophisticated Yale University Social Interaction Laboratory was a prudent choice for Milgram’s study.
Preliminary experiments that led up to the study were conducted in the year 1960 under the sponsorship of Yale University (Milgram, 1963). Actual experiments followed in July 1961 (McLeod, 2007). The study was completed in 1963 when the article that documented it was published (Lilienfeld et al., 2010).
Intriguingly, despite the many years that have gone by since its conduction, this study still features as the most controversial of all the studies that were carried out by Milgram (Slater et al., 2006). The controversy was brought about by the argument that it had an adverse psychological effect on the subjects.
The study sample consisted of forty individuals from the New Haven vicinity. They all fell within the age bracket of 20 to 50 years (Milgram, 1963). They were invited using newspaper advertisements and direct mail soliciting.
This sample was representative of the New Haven community because it consisted of people from all walks of life (Milgram, 1963). They were misled to believe that they were to participate in an important study at Yale University (Slater et al., 2006). Also, they were promised $4.5 for agreeing to take part in the study (Bocchairo & Zimbardo, 2010).
Milgram designed a relatively simple procedure for the study subjects. The study itself was complex, but the part to be played by the subjects was simplified. It involved the experimenter, the teacher (subject), and the learner (McLeod, 2007). As a teacher, the subject was required to read multiple-choice questions to the learner and wait for responses.
Any wrong response elicited punishment from the teacher in the form of an electric shock from a shock generator. The teacher administered the punishment by pressing a series of buttons that purportedly triggered the shock generator. The experimenter instructed the teacher to increase the severity of the shock with every successive incorrect response (Milgram, 1974). Failure to respond to a question was also considered a wrong response.
Considering the experiment from the perspective of the subjects, it was perfect. Every precaution was taken to make them believe that the experiment was real. None of the subjects suspected any mischief (Milgram, 1963). The researcher went to appalling extents to make sure that every aspect of the experimental procedure was authentic. Consequently, the study yielded results that made it a landmark study to date.
The study findings showed that most of the subjects obeyed the instructions of the experimenter to the end regardless of the pain that the learner seemed to be undergoing. Some unexpected results, such as nervous laughter and uncontrollable seizures, also featured (Milgram, 1963). Such results puzzled the researcher. Nonetheless, the question that he sought to answer was satisfactorily addressed.
Majority of the subjects proceeded with the experiment against their wish because they felt obliged to obey the experimenter (Slater et al., 2006). This study was, therefore, consistent with the claims of the war crime suspects that they only committed the said atrocities in obedience to authority figures (McLeod, 2007). Taking this finding into account, the study was a success.
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Controversy sets in when ethical considerations come into play. The massive criticism that this study has elicited focuses on its ethical credibility. Arguably, by failing to disclose the truth to the subjects, the study breached ethical statutes. As it turned out, such claims have a compelling basis because subjects were deceived several times to make the study successful. First, the actual reason behind the study was concealed from the subjects (Milgram, 1974).
Also, subjects were subjected to a sample shock to hoodwink them into believing that the shock generator was real (Milgram, 1963). As a result, most subjects left the laboratory with high levels of mental stress that could have been dangerous to the health of some (Lilienfeld et al., 2010).
Although the deceit was necessary for the success of the experiment, the subjects ought to have been told the truth at the end. However, this requirement was not met because long after the study had been concluded, Milgram still objected to a move by the New York Times to publish an account of the study. Therefore, from an ethical perspective, the study failed.
Bocchairo, P., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2010). Defying unjust authority: An exploratory study. Current Psychology, 29(2), 155-170.
Lilienfeld, S., Lynn, S., Namy, L., & Woolf, N. (2010). Psychology: A framework for everyday thinking. London, Britain: Pearson
McLeod, S. (2007). Milgram experiment. Web.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obidience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obidience to authority: An experimental view. New York City, NY: Harpercollins.
Slater, M., Antley, A., Davison, A., Swapp, D., Guger, C., Baker, C., et al. (2006). A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments. PLOS One, 1 (1), 39.