Once upon a time, a group of people got together to decide on some guidelines for what was unacceptable and what wasn’t. They came up with a set of very basic rules to constitute ethics that supposedly applied to everything. Deceiving someone was unethical. Doing something to someone without previously getting their consent was unethical. Inflicting physical or psychological harm upon someone was unethical. However, these rules are constantly being overlooked by different groups of people for different reasons.
Sometimes psychologists ignore ethical guidelines in their experiments to increase the study’s internal or external validity, or because they want to study a particularly sensitive issue. Their argument would be that the benefits derived from the results of their study would greatly surpass the harm that may come to their participants. Milgram’s study of obedience is an example of an unethically conducted experiment that provided great insight into the human nature. This controversial experiment revealed the extent to which humans are willing to go in order to obey a figure of authority. In it, Milgram used a cover story to maintain psychological realism. He did this by deceiving his participants, telling them that it was a study on learning and punishment. He also failed to get informed consent from the participants, as they didn’t know the true nature of the study beforehand, due to the cover story used. However the greatest issue was the physical and psychological harm that came to them as a result of it. Throughout the experiment, the participants experienced symptoms of great discomfort due to the pressure, including trembling, sweating and hysterical laughter. A few even had full on seizures! On top of all that, they had to live the rest of their lives thinking that they would have been capable of harming another human being for no reason. This was a problem because it decreased the participants’ self-esteem, making them question if the really are as good as they had previously believed. However, they were debriefed at the end, and told about the overwhelming effects of social influence and the power of the situation to help explain their behaviour. But there still might have been negative effects on their self-perception. This may all seem terrible, however it was necessary to the experiment. Had the participants been told the true nature of the experiment, they may have displayed demand characteristics, thereby completely falsifying the results and leading to a low internal validity. Also, the intensity of the situation was required to make it seem realistic and therefore provide a high external validity.
So when is it ethical to overlook ethical guidelines? Is it ethical to harm people during a war? What kinds of people is it ethical to harm during a war? Is the use of chemical or biological weapons ethical? How about nuclear weapons? The Milgram obedience study didn’t just raise questions about human nature, but also about ethics. It showed us an example of when it was considered ok to ignore the agreed upon ethical guidelines. But was it ok?
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.