Critically evaluate whether Milgrams research on obedience was ethical

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Methods & Ethics Assignment

A.C. 1.1, 2.1

Critically evaluate whether Milgram’s research on obedience was ethical.

In 1961, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted the first of the frequently discussed obedience experiment, sometimes referred to as the “shock” studies. The purpose of the experiment was to discover the willingness of the participants to obey an authority figure, who instructed them to inflict shocks on the ‘learners.’ The shocks varied from a mild 15 volts up to an eventual, extremely dangerous 450 volts. The studies were inspired by Milgram’s interest in the Nazi’s behaviour and the Holocaust, in particular how ordinary German citizens assisted Hitler with a massive killing program. The results of Milgram’s experiment were that 80% of participants were obedient, with 65% of those being fully obedient and continuing to the end of the experiment (Moxon, et al., 2003). Milgram concluded that obedience to authority is not a German culture but a seemingly universal feature of human behaviour, based on situational factors, not individual characteristics.

Ethics can be complicated with no plain rules and there is very rarely a clear right answer, however there are guidelines in place covering the main principles of consent, deception, distress caused, right to withdraw, debriefing and protection of participants to name a few. Also known as moral philosophy, ethics seek to address questions about morality and explore concepts such as good or bad, right and wrong, justice and virtue; however, they had not yet formally been introduced into psychology research at that time. It was not until 1990 that the British Psychological Society (BPS) first published a set of ethical guidelines but having said that, psychologist were aware they still had a responsibility to protect their participants from harm and not to cause them unnecessary distress. There was a great deal of debate around whether Milgram showed enough respect for his participants and many believed that they were not protected against long-term harm. There have also been claims that the studies involved lack of consent and deception amongst many other issues that are now known as ethical concerns.

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It is true that due to the nature of the experiment, it would have been difficult to obtain informed consent from the participants without revealing that the switches were actually harmless and that the learner was an actor; therefore, they did not agree to what happened in the experiment. Although they volunteered to take part, the true purpose of the research was not revealed until after their participation. In the case of Milgram’s experiment, it clear that the research would have had no value as the obedience levels could not have been accurately recorded had the participants been aware ...

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Despite the point that modern ethical guidelines are more stringent, most of this essay has taken Milgram's side in defending his actions - so this conclusion doesn't really fit. This is a common problem in student essays - it is vitally important to consider everything that has been presented in the essay and to use the most convincing of these points in drawing the conclusion. Overall, though, this is a well balanced and carefully structured essay, which would get a good mark at AS level if not A2. 4 stars.

Here's what a star student thought of this essay


The Quality of Written Communication is good. There are only very few moments that feature a typing/spelling error, but none of these compromise the clarity of written expression. Overall the QWC is very high, as demonstrated by the extensive use of appropriate, field-specific lexis to approach the question (all of which are spelt accurately).

The Level of Analysis here is very good. There is a sound evaluation of the ethical issues of informed consent; possibility of deception; debriefing and follow-up procedures; and potential harm to the participant. Each ethical issue is backed up with evidence that is relevant to the study and there is a clear justification for the presence of such ethical issues, for example, ethical issues must be disregarded at time to ensure psychological studies like Milgram's don't become a role-playing exercise like Reicher & Haslam's failed BBC Prison Study). The answer also considers how temporal changes permitted Milgram's procedures in the 60s, but in modern day society, the ethical issues raised in Milgram's study wouldn't even get the all-clear from a ethics committee and therefore would achieve no funding. This kind of analysis is exactly what the question asking for - all the ethical issues are discussed in turn and then linked wherever possible, and it is this integration (such as the low validity if the participants gave informed consent) which makes reading the essay so interesting, because it is obvious the candidate has a good knowledge of psychology and it's ethical regards.

This question on Social Psychology focuses on the ethical debate of Stanley Milgram's study of Obedience to an Authority Figure. The candidate shows an unbroken focus on the question and the entire answer is focused on the ethical regard in the experiment. A lengthy procedure that is often considered very unethical, this candidate has done well in structuring their answer by first explaining some background research to the experiment; briefly outlining the experiment itself; what ethics are; and why ethics are so important when evaluating Milgram's study. Al this shows the examiner the candidate possesses a deeply developed knowledge of the ethics of Psychology and how to apply them to psychological evidence for obedience and authority.