Milgram’s behavioral study of obedience was an experiment conducted at Yale University. It was designed to evaluate the degree of obedience to an authoritative figure during the voluntary participation in the apparently painful and potentially harmful experiment. The initial hypothesis was that the large proportion of the study sample would resist the authoritative commands and terminate their participation before the alleged voltage would reach the hazardous height, as indicated by the response of the “learner.” The method involved recruiting 40 males from the ones willing to participate in a supposed study of memory and learning (Milgram, 1963).
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The sample was collected on the territory of the University, and the procedure was initially conducted on the premises. The procedure was as follows: the experimenter (“Experimenter”) issued simple mnemonic tasks to the “learner,” an actor who was presented to the participant as another volunteer. The participant (“the learner”) had to administer stronger electric shock each time the ‘learner” failed. Four authoritative phrases were said in the invariable sequence once the “teacher” expressed doubt. The experiment was terminated once the “teacher” insisted or after the maximal voltage was administered four times. The results indicated stronger obedience than hypothesized by Milgram (1963), with the majority of participants showing complete compliance.
The experiment had several controversial ethical issues. For instance, the American Psychological Association (2010) states “8.02 informed consent to research: psychologists inform participants about… (4) reasonably foreseeable factors that may be expected to influence their willingness to participate such as potential risks, discomfort, or adverse effects” (p. 10). The description of the procedure provided by Milgram makes no mention of the potential stress resulting from participation. At the same time, the participant displayed significant stress in response to the reaction of the “learner” (Milgram, 1963). In addition, according to the “8.07 deception in research: Psychologists do not conduct a study involving deception unless they have determined that the use of deceptive techniques is justified by the study’s significant prospective scientific, educational, or applied value” (APA, 2010, p. 11). While the study necessitates the belief in the reality of the alleged danger to the “learner,” this is insufficient for determining value.
Diana Baumrind criticized the latter by pointing out that the experimenter was not entitled to proceed with the experiment upon seeing the distress experienced by the participants. What further aggravated the situation, according to the author, was a “posture of trust and obedience” assumed by the volunteer upon opting in for the experiment (Baumrind, 1964, p. 421). This trust results in the participant’s assumption that “his security and self-esteem will be protected” which enhanced the observed obedience (Baumrind, 1964, p. 421). I must admit that despite the obvious violation of ethical principles, I find it hard to agree with the author, probably because of the enormous significance of the obtained results and relatively small alleged adverse effects, although such an approach to determining ethical boundaries is clearly wrong.
Milgram promptly responded to Baumrind’s criticism by publishing a report based on the questionnaire administered to the former participants. In the report, he acknowledged the fact of stress experienced by the participants but emphasized that the code of conduct emphasized the possibility to withdraw from the experiment (Milgram, 1964). In addition, he published the results of the questionnaire, which suggested that of the 92 percent who responded to the questionnaire, 84 percent expressed their satisfaction with participation in the experiment while only 1.3 percent expressed negative feelings associated with participation (Milgram, 1964). Finally, Milgram (1964) emphasized the dehoax procedure that minimized the adverse effects of the stress.
APA. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Web.
Baumrind, D. (1964). Some thoughts on ethics of research: After reading Milgram’s” Behavioral study of obedience.”. American Psychologist, 19(6), 421-423.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.
Milgram, S. (1964). Issues in the study of obedience. American Psychologist, 19(11), 848-852.