Was Milgram's Research Ethical?

Milgram's research was controversial, in part because of the stress it put on his subjects. Many psychologists raised the issue of research ethics in connection with Milgram's research, arguing that it was not acceptable to put subjects through this kind of experience. Milgram (1963) himself made it sound as if participation in his experiment could be traumatic. He quoted a person who observed his experiment:

What questions about research ethics were stimulated by Milgram's research?

I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and confident. Within 20 minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck who was rapidly approaching a point of nervous collapse. He constantly pulled on his earlobe and twisted his hands. At one point he pushed his fist into his forehead and muttered, "Oh, God, let's stop it." And yet he continued to respond to every word of the experimenter and obeyed to the end.

What is an IRB and what does it do?

Milgram's experiment, and that possibility that it could have traumatized some of its participants, stimulated discussion about the need to protect the rights of research subjects. In the 1970s and 1980s, universities and other research institutions put safeguards in place to prevent violations of subjects' rights. Now proposals for research must be submitted to institutional review boards (IRBs) before the research is ever conducted, to make sure no harmful manipulations are used. Such boards do not approve research that is potentially distressing to subjects. Milgram's research probably could not be repeated today.

What does it mean to "debrief" subjects?

What did Milgram find out as he debriefed subjects?

To Milgram's credit, he took pains to make sure his subjects suffered no lasting harm. Milgram did debrief his subjects. In other words, he revealed the true nature of the experiment. He also arranged a reconciliation with the learner as soon as the experiment was over, asking the confederate who played the role to come into the room and shake hands with the teacher before the teacher left.

Milgram also asked the subjects after debriefing whether they were very glad, glad, neither sorry nor glad, sorry, or very sorry to have participated. He found less than 2% in any group said they were "sorry" or "very sorry." In fact, the subjects who had been most obedient, going all the way to the top of the shock scale, were most likely to say they were "very glad" to have participated in the experiment. Perhaps they were showing relief at finding they had not really killed a man, a form of hedonic contrast.

Milgram also had a psychiatrist interview his subjects a year after the experiment to determine whether they had suffered adverse reactions. No long-term distress was found.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey