Ethical Issues in Research

Stanley Milgram

Stanley Milgram was a social psychologist at Yale University. In the aftermath of WWII, he conducted a study (Milgram, 1963) on the dilemma of obedience versus conscience, following war trial claims that war criminals were not responsible for their behaviour because they were obeying orders.

The experiment involved a teacher being instructed to administer an electric shock of increasing intensity to a learner every time he/she made a mistake. What the teacher did not know was that the learner was an actor, who naturally indicated more discomfort as the punishment increased. If teachers queried increasing the punishments, they were encouraged to continue.

The results were surprising. 65% of the teachers obeyed orders to punish the learner right to the end of the 450-volt scale. Not one of them disobeyed orders before reaching 300 volts. When the experimenter was absent or provided contradictory instructions, obedience dropped significantly. At times, the teacher did question the experimenter, but when the experimenter assumed full responsibility, the teachers seemed to accept this and continue shocking. How could the teachers do this?

Milgram's explanation was that human beings have the capacity to exercise their own moral judgment or relinquish their autonomy. But why did people obey orders that went against their normal standards of behaviour? Milgram argued that authority demands obedience and the subjects behaved accordingly, obeying the authority of the experimenter.

These findings were extremely controversial. They contradicted what professionals had expected to happen and raised ethical concerns. There were questions about Milgram's use of deception and whether it was ethically responsible to have participants believe that they were hurting another human being. Milgram defended his methods and explained that the participants were debriefed following the study. The subjects reported that they felt they had helped mankind and learned about human nature in the process.

Researchers must always consider ethical issues and professional bodies produce guidelines that must be followed for research proposals to be accepted. They generally cover things like:

  • obtaining participants' informed consent - fully advising participants about procedures and risks, and obtaining their consent to participate

  • protection from harm - avoiding situations where participants might be at risk of harm, physical or psychological

  • deception - not deceiving people or causing them shame, loss of self esteem or trauma

  • confidentiality - assuring participants that identifying information will not be made available to anyone not directly involved in the study and that they will remain anonymous throughout the study - even to the researchers themselves

  • debriefing after the research events - counselling participants so that tensions and uncertainties are released and resolved

  • allowing participants to withdraw from the research situation

  • the right to service - research often involves a no-treatment control group - a group of participants who do not get the treatment or program that is being studied. But if that treatment or program has beneficial effects, the people in the no-treatment control are being disadvantaged. Therefore their needs must be considered in the overall plan for the research project.

Check these web sites for more details:
  • The Australian Psychological Society
  • The American Sociological Association
  • The American Psychological Association
  • The British Psychological Society