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Psychological research, obedience and ethics
Psychological research, obedience and ethics

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2.2 The case against Milgram

Before you go on to read about the criticism of Milgram’s obedience studies, try to think through all the issues relating to ethics that are raised by this work.

Question 2

In what way were the participants deceived, or harmed? Did they have the right to withdraw? Do you think that in Milgram’s case the ends justify the means? Do the benefits of the study justify the costs? Do you think that the results of the study are worth the pain and discomfort caused to the participants?

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Among those who were highly critical of Milgram’s study was fellow psychologist Diana Baumrind. She started her critique by noting the dilemma that all research psychologists face: ‘Certain problems in psychological research require the experimenter to balance his career and scientific interests against the interests of his prospective subjects’ (Baumrind, 1964, p. 421).

Baumrind challenged Milgram on whether he had properly protected the welfare of the participants. She used direct quotes from Milgram’s original report to illustrate the lack of regard she said was shown to the participants. In particular, she noted the detached manner in which Milgram described the emotional turmoil experienced by the volunteers. For example:

In a large number of cases the degree of tension [in the participants] reached extremes that are rarely seen in sociopsychological laboratory studies. Subjects were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh. These were characteristic rather than exceptional responses to the experiment.

(Milgram, 1963, p. 375)

In Baumrind’s view, and in the view of numerous others, the levels of anxiety experienced by participants were enough to warrant halting the experiment. What is more, just because someone volunteers to take part in the study (i.e. gives informed consent at the start of the study), it does not mean that the researcher no longer has responsibilities towards them and their wellbeing. On the principle of costbenefit, Baumrind challenged the view that the scientific worth of the study balanced out the distress caused to the participants. She acknowledged that some harm to participants might be a necessary part of some research – for example, when testing out new medical procedures – as in those cases results cannot be achieved in any other way. Social psychology, however, is not in the same game as medicine and is unlikely to produce life-saving results. The strength of the conclusions does not, therefore, justify harming participants. Milgram related his study to the behaviour of people who worked in the Nazi death camps and suggested that his study illuminated the way that ordinary people living ordinary lives are capable of playing a part in destructive and cruel acts. Baumrind dismissed this justification for the study and suggested there are few, if any, parallels between the behaviour in the study and the behaviour in the death camps.

Baumrind went on to make a further criticism by considering the effect of this work on the public image of psychology, and suggested that it would be damaged because the general public would judge that the participants were not protected or respected.

A further potential problem with Milgram’s experiment concerns the participants’ right to withdraw. Do you think that this principle, embedded in the Nuremberg Code, was sufficiently observed in Milgram’s research? Recall that one of the key aspects of the experimental procedure was that whenever a participant demonstrated a reluctance to carry on with administering the shocks, they were told by the ‘experimenter’ in the grey coat ‘you must go on’, or ‘you have no choice; you must go on’. It might be argued that telling a participant that they ‘have no choice’ but to continue with the experiment contravenes the right to withdraw, which is enshrined in the ethics code. To be fair, fourteen of the forty participants in the original study did withdraw, in spite of being told that they had no choice, so it could be argued that, ultimately, the participants did have a choice. It is just that making that choice was made more difficult by the presence of the ‘experimenter’ and by his prods. After all, the study was about obedience, and the instructions from the ‘experimenter’ were essential to the investigation. Exercising or not exercising the right to withdraw is what the study was about.