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In 1963 Stanley Milgram conducted psychological research on obedience to test the hypothesis of dispositional attribution about whether people obey persons in authority, regardless of the act being asked of them. Milgram recruited 40 males to participate in the study of memory and learning being conducted at Yale University. Ethics can be defined as a consideration of what is acceptable or right behaviour in the pursuit of a particular personal or scientific goal (Cardwell 2000). Ethics are also guidelines within psychological research which must be adhered to in order for the research to be valid and not breach the human rights of the participants.

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Milgram was criticised for breaching a number of ethics such as informed consent, deception, distress and withdrawal throughout the research. It is these in particular which will be explored further throughout the essay. After this research was undertaken a number of leading Psychologists and experts in the field expressed much criticism to how Milgram conducted the research, none more so however than Diane Baurmind. Baumrind produced an article which centred on four main ethical breaches which expressed concern regarding permanent psychological damage to the participants following the experiences of the research. Milgram also did many variations on this research in order to show and prove why he conducted the initial research, to prove obedience and this will also be briefly touched upon.

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Diane Baumrind a leading Psychologist produced an article which centred on four main ethical concerns. Two of which were that the participants were not given the opportunity to give informed consent to their taking part in the experiment and that the participants were deceived in a number of ways. Baumrind claimed Psychological distress was caused to the participants during the experiment. Baumrinds listed these criticisms in her article in American Psychologist (1964). Orne and Holland were other experts in the field who gave critism to Milgrams research. Orne and Holland claimed that the study lacked experimental (internal) validity; participants were only ‘going along with the act’ when they ‘shocked’ the learner, that they were not really distressed, just pretending to be distressed in order to please the experimenter. (Cardwell 2003).

One of the ethical elements of taking part in psychological research is the informed consent of the participants. To comply with ethics when carrying out psychological research the investigator should inform all participants of the objectives of the investigation. In Milgrams research the experimenter went through exactly what would happen step by step and informed of all aspects of the research or intervention that might reasonably be expected to influence the willingness to participate. The participant after being talked through the experiment and in particular about the fact electric shocks would be administered did consent to take part.

Although this can be argued that the participants did not actually know the true nature of the research. This needs to be taken into account when answering if the experiment was ethical as they have consented. However would the participants, if they knew that obedience is what they would be measured on still have consented? The results would have been different and more participants would have withdrawn sooner potentially.

The research received much critism most relating to the potential harm that might have been done to the participants. The participant, who acted as the teacher, was himself given a small electric shock and informed at the beginning that he would have to continue with the experiment no matter what. The participants on hearing the distress of the student once the electric shocks had been administered, were supposedly more intense, expressed concern and were unsure whether to go on. However most did still carry on again this could be argued that they had free choice in which to request to withdraw.

The experimenter did not force the participants to give the electric shocks although they were always encouraged to carry on with the experiment. However a small number of the participants did refuse to continue further with the experiment. While others went on to comply after prompting from the investigator to continue, the experimenter makes it very difficult for the teacher to halt the experiment using lines such as ‘the experiment requires that you continue’. In this case, do the experimenters, who to the teacher pose in a position of authority, coerce them into continuing rather than force them?

This can be answered by looking at the verbal prompts which can be seen as a means of persuasion. The teacher may have placed their trust in the person who holds the position of authority, and may also think they have a greater knowledge in the field. The participants did not have learning difficulties therefore no advantage had been taken. The participants would know the difference between wrong and right. This shows that although the participant questioned the experiment or stated that they did not want to continue further they were told by the experimenter to continue hence proving the theory on obedience.

Did the participants feel that they had a right to withdraw or did they also feel an obligation to continue? It can be argued the fact that the participant was paid a fee could lead them to feel that they had an obligation to finish the experiment. Also it needs to be taken into account that there are a number of outside pressure factors other than the experimenter that may have caused them to continue further than they would have done under different circumstances. Would refusing to continue ruin an expensive, important experiment in some of the participants view? This may be argued that for the participants of a lower social class and level of education may have felt that this was the case.

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Kylie Garcia

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