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

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2.3 The case for the defence

Milgram made a series of robust defences for the study, starting with a response to the newspaper article that first raised concerns. He dismissed the accusation that participants were severely traumatised by the experience. He argued that ‘relatively few subjects experienced greater tension than a nail-biting patron at a good Hitchcock thriller’ (quoted in Blass, 2007). This was rather disingenuous, given his other descriptions of their reactions (see above). However, Milgram made a more measured response to the academic arguments. He pointed out, for instance, that he could not have known the outcome of the research before he started. As you already read, before embarking on the study he asked fellow professionals how they expected people to behave, and they predicted that participants would not continue to obey and administer severe shocks to the ‘learner’.

More importantly, Milgram was not oblivious to the psychological needs of his participants and was aware of the potential harm caused by the study. Immediately after the study, its true purpose was revealed to the participants. They were interviewed and given questionnaires to check they were all right. A friendly reconciliation was also arranged with the ‘victim’ whom they thought they had shocked. This procedure, known as debriefing, is commonplace today, but this was not the case in the 1960s. So, in this respect at least, Milgram was ahead of the game in terms of ethics procedures (Blass, 2004).

Milgram also conducted a follow-up survey of the participants one year after the study, to ensure that there was no long-term harm (Colman, 1987). The results showed that 84 per cent said they were ‘glad to have been in the experiment’, and only 1.3 per cent said they were very sorry to have taken part. Milgram also described how the participants had been examined by a psychiatrist who was unable to find a single participant who showed signs of long-term harm. Morris Braverman, a 39-year-old social worker, was one of the participants in Milgram’s experiment who continued to give shocks until the maximum was reached. He claimed, when interviewed a year after the experiment, that he had learned something of personal importance as a result of being in the experiment. His wife said, with reference to his willingness to obey orders, ‘You can call yourself an Eichmann’ (Milgram, 1974, p. 54).

Milgram’s basic defence was that the harm to the participants was not as great as it might appear, and for some of them the change in their understanding of their own behaviour and the behaviour of others was a positive event. He makes a further defence that we have to treat all people with respect and that this involves allowing them to make choices even if those choices are not always for the best. In direct response to Baumrind’s criticisms he wrote:

I started with the belief that every person who came to the laboratory was free to accept or to reject the dictates of authority. This view sustains a conception of human dignity insofar as it sees in each man a capacity for choosing his own behavior.

(Milgram, 1964, p. 851)