Ethical issues in Milgram and Zimbardo's experiments

The ethical issues surrounding the subject of psychology have been ever-changing throughout the years. The standard ethical guidelines have been altered and influenced on multiple different occasions due to on-going experiments and investigations conducted in the field of psychology. Over the last fifty years, the ethical standards have become more rigid and stricter, particularly due to the influence of two investigations; Milgram’s Obedience Study and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment.

Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, completed in 1971 was a study conducted by constructing a fake prison to see how authority given to ‘guards’ affected both the guard’s behaviour and the prisoners’.

The experiment quickly got out of hand, and it wasn’t long before the set up began to resemble that of a real prison environment. The prisoners began to be subjected to abuse and were treated negligently by the guards, and began to believe they were in a real prison. The unethical nature of the experiment meant it would be shut down after only six days.

Despite the negative issues of the study, the experiment became significant to psychology and how experiments are now conducted. It enabled researchers to understand different aspects of how people behave and why, and was also a crucial factor in the tightening of ethical guidelines. The psychological damage the participants suffered became one of the defining factors in the review of ethical standards. One positive aspect of this experiment was the advances on ethical guidelines and the use of human participation. To prevent an experiment getting out of control like this again, stricter procedures have been put in place.

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There are several ethical principles this experiment would easily breach if it had been conducted in modern times with new, revised ethical standards. The participants were subjected to a lack of fully informed consent, as they did not know what would happen in the experiment. They did not consent to being “arrested’ at their homes either. This was because the researchers wanted the arrest to come as a surprise, but did indeed violate basic ethical principles. The major ethical principle that was violated was the ‘Do No Harm’ guideline. Multiple of the participants suffered from psychological damage and disturbance. They experienced incidents of humiliation and distress, one prisoner having to leave the experiment due to screaming, crying and anger. These outbursts stemmed from the harassment and isolation the prisoners were subjected to and led to distorted thinking. The other ethical principle that was violated was the prisoner’s ‘Right to Withdraw’. After a prisoner being told he needed to continue the experiment, he became under the impression that he could not leave. This was what led him to his outbursts, and he became fixated on the idea he was inside a real prison. However, these negative factors all contributed positively to a stronger ethical guideline base today.

The second psychological study was Milgram’s Obedience Study which was conducted in 1963 (McLeod, 2007). The experiment investigated how far people would go when it came to following orders from authority figures. A ‘teacher’ was instructed to read a list of words aloud, and give electric shocks to the ‘learner’ when they did not answer correctly. For every answer the learner got wrong, the amount of volts was increased. However, the ‘learner’ was not actually being shocked, despite the ‘teacher’ thoroughly believing hey were. The teacher was able to hear the learner’s response after each shock was given, and the amount of discomfort was recorded. This experiment was the first of it’s kind, and let researchers understand the area of behavioral psychology. It allowed researchers to get a more in depth understanding of how behaviour is influenced when under the influence of an authority figure.

Similar to that of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram Study also violated multiple modern day ethical principles. The most pivotal ethical principle that was violated was Deception. The participants were led to believe they were shocking a real person. Milgram argued that the deception was necessary to get appropriate results, but could have easily compromised the mental health of many of the participants. Another principle that was violated was the Right to Withdraw. When participants could hear the shocks the learners were subjected to, they began to question whether it was okay to continue. The researchers insisted that they did, saying things such as “the experiment requires you to continue’ and ‘it is absolutely crucial that you continue’. This was another form of deception, as participants did not think they could withdraw. The Do no Harm guideline was also breached, as it could be seen that participants suffered from short-term psychological damage. However, without the breaching of these ethical guidelines, the study would not have been so influential in the modern period.

Due to both of these influential studies, the ethical guidelines have changed dramatically. New restrictions make sure studies like these that could potentially harm participants can no longer be completed. Nowadays, psychology researchers have to consider all ethical principles and whether there is any risk with the experiment. For simple studies where research methods only include online surveys and the risk is minimal, the experiment still has to go before an ethics board. For more advanced, risky experiments needing human participants can become impossible if there is human risk. If the ethical guidelines become even more strict than they already are, it is possible that no more psychological advances will be made (Elizabeth, 2016) (Stevenson, 2016).

I believe that the more concise and strict ethical guidelines have both positively and negatively impacted psychology as a whole. Experiments can now be conducted in a safer environment with more concern for any possible impact on human participants. However, these guidelines have also restricted the amount of research that can be undertaken in certain studies. The biggest advances that have been made occurred when there were limited ethical guidelines. However, it is not worth risking participant’s mental health for the sake of psychological advances.

To conclude, ethical guidelines have overall had a positive impact on the field of psychology. This can be seen through the lower amount of studies conducting that cause any psychological harm to any participants. Psychological experiments have become safer and more efficient, and sources have become more credible. Despite the importance of ethical guidelines, there is a worry that the future of psychology holds limited research and will prevent any further advances.

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Ethical issues in Milgram and Zimbardo's experiments. (2021, Dec 21). Retrieved from

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