Shortly after World War II, early 1960s, the Milgram Experiment investigated obedience to authority.
Possibly one of the most well known research studies involving deception, participants were mislead to believe they were being recruited for an experiment in learning.
The authority figure, experimenter, assigned the participant as the teacher and the confederate as the learner. The teacher was tasked with reading out word pairings to their partner, the learner, who was attached to electrode in an adjacent room.
Each time the learner answered the word pair incorrectly, the teacher was to deliver a shock, increasing the shocks intensity with every error. The electric shock generator has 30 switches starting at 15 volts, labeled ‘slight shock’ all the way up to 450 volts, labeled ‘danger severe shock.’
As the shock level increased, the Learner began demonstrating signals of pain, asking for the experiment to be stopped and finally stating that they had a heart condition before becoming startlingly quiet.
Many participants (teachers) refused to continue or asked to stop. However the experimenter urged them to continue stating “the experiment requires you to continue”, “it is absolutely essential you continue” and “you have no other choice but to continue”. As the authority figure, the experimenter was able to discourage many participants from withdrawing.
The Milgram study had several ethical issues. The first ethical issue was the degree of deception. The participants were not provided with a clear explanation of any possible risks prior to volunteering for the study, rather they were lead to believe they were causing physical harm to another individual, exposing them to potential psychological harm. Many participants were visibly distressed and demonstrated signs of stress; trembling, sweating, nervous laugher, biting lips and digging fingernails into palms. It was further reported three participants had uncontrollable seizures during the study.
The second ethical issue was the right to withdraw consent. Participants were not allowed to discontinue their participation at any time. Even after asking to stop the study, they were urged to continue by the experimenter. Due to these urgings an astounding 65% of participants continued to the maximum of 450 volts while 35% continued to 300 volts prior to withdrawing from the study.
The third ethical issue was the lack of debriefing. Milgram reported that he “de-hoaxed” his participants. Milgram told his participants that the study had been a hoax but he never completely revealed the purpose of the study to his participants.
This experiment would be difficult to conduct today, with the protections put in place for human subject research. The experiment is represented on IMARC’s History of Clinical Research Timeline as a reminder for why we need such rigor in human subject research.
Had you heard of the Milgram experiments? How do you think you would have responded as a participant?