What Lessons in Ethics Did Social Scientists Learn from Milgram and Stanford? Essay Sample

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What lessons in ethics did social scientists learn from Milgram and Stanford? In order to produce valuable research that can provide solid and beneficial results we need to carry out experiments in order to achieve this. However over the years multiple experiments that have been carried out have been ethically wrong and have resulted in the contenders of the experiments left mentally and physically damaged, and some even resulting in death, like dying the Nazis experiments when patients suffered all kinds of horrific mutilations (Cohen, 2010). Following this came the Nuremburg code whereby ‘ten points’ were made to define new ethical standards that researchers had to follow for a morally right experiment to take place (Annas, 1992). However these did not stop unethical experiments from taking place after they came into action such as the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment both have been questionable in terms of their morality and whether or not the researchers actually acknowledged the fact that there are ethical procedures needed to be followed. Both experiments show what can go wrong when ethical standards are disregarded.

Following world war two and ruling of the Nazis in Germany were the Nuremburg trials which resulted in the Nuremburg code following the human experiments the Nazi had performed for years during world war two on innocent people who did not consent in such experiments, and lead to many deaths and harmed people. The ten points being; firstly consent is a necessary when conducting experiments because then they know what they are getting into and therefore they are doing on their own agreement. Secondly the experiment must produce rich quality of results whereby it is advantageous for society and not just the researcher themselves. Thirdly, previous to staring the experiments researchers should prepare so when they are creating their experiment they should make sure they can establish the safety of the person and effects it will have on the partakers. Fourthly, the experiments should not be harmful to the participant whether it is physically or mentally. Fifth, if it is believed that the experiment will ether kill or disable the participant it should In no away go ahead. The Sixth point is that the participant’s life is more valuable than getting results on the experiment so always put them first.

The seventh point is to organise and plan the experiment properly so that it runs smoothly without problems and doesn’t result in death or Harm to the participant. Number eight is only experts in that area of experimentation should be allowed to perform the experiments as they deem the only capable to do so. Number nine of the Nuremburg code is when and if the participant wants to leave or end the experiment as they feel it is mentally or physically affecting them they can do so. And the final point is that if the experiment does become dangerous and risk the life of people it should be stopped immediately so not to affect the participants in anyway (Freyhofer, 2005). However, despite the Nuremburg codes invention in 1947, the Milgram experiment, which began to take place in the year 1961, and the Stanford prison experiment which took place in the year 1971, both did not harmonise with these ten codes and have been deemed unethical experiments over the years after they took place.

The Milgram experiment which began in 1961 was a series of experiments planned in reaction to the experiments that the Nazis had undertook and whom many of the experimenters maintained they ‘were just following orders’ and so in response to this Milgram developed his experiments to find out whether people do obey authoritative figures despite what they are being told to do being immoral (Shuttleworth, 2008). The experiment included 40 participants all aged between 20 and 50 years old all varied levels of education but all were men. One participant would be a teacher who would teach one of the participant’s word associations and if they got it wrong they would receive a shock off of the teacher, the more they got wrong the higher the shock would increase, to a power of 450 volts (Milgram, 2004). The results from the experiment were that all 40 went up to 300 volts but also that 26 out of the 40 men who partook gave the maximum power of voltage to the person they were teaching, which are shocking statistics.

Whilst in the experiment several of the participants began showing signs of being nervous such as sweating, biting their lips and trembling (Blass, 2004). In terms of its ethicalness, Milgram’s experiment is based on the Nazis experiments because he wanted to find out if people obey higher commands, and he did prove in his experiment that they do as over half the participants proceeded to give the person they were to teach the highest power of voltage, as instructed to do, although they could have opted out if necessary. Ethical problems with Milgram’s experiment first and foremost is that he deceived the participants because he did not fully make the participants aware of the experiment, he told them the intention of the experiment was to examine punishment and learning, not what it was actually about, obedience.

Another form of the Nuremburg code that Milgram broke during his experiments was the fourth, whereby the experiments should not be damaging in any way to the participant because it was obvious, first of, during the experiment that the ‘teachers’ were feeling strain and nervousness due to evident signs which can cause trauma afterwards to the participant and possibly lead to future psychological problems with the stress it had put on them. Finally it also breached the ninth code of being able to leave the experiment at any given time as the participants were actually compelled to carry on due to encouragement given from the person doing the experiment each time they may have mentioned they did not want to carry on. Albeit that the Milgram experiment did not actually have long term effects on any one of the participants the experiment still breached the ethical guidelines. Following this experiment however, in 1971 was the Stanford prison experiment, which took breaching of the ethical guidelines a step too far (Shuttleworth, 2008).

The Stanford Prison experiment took place from the fourteenth to the twentieth of August 1971, and consisted of 24 regular volunteers who were each either allocated the role of a prisoner or the role of a guard in a simulated prison. His aim for the experiment was to find out if it is the characteristics and inbuilt personality qualities of prisoners and of guards that are the main reason for the existence of violent actions in prison. The experiment was to be on for two weeks however due to trauma experienced which was more than likely going to affect the volunteers psychologically not only physically but mentally, it was called off after 6 days (Cox, 2008). From then the set up began with both prisoners and guards assumed their individual roles quickly and well but with shocking consequences to follow. The prisoners became dejected and resulted in some of them suffering.

Around the 26 hours point and one of the prisoners could no longer handle it and was released due to the feelings of extreme depression and constant crying. Following this over the next three days more prisoners also were released as they were experiencing the same feelings as the first released prisoner had; including anxiety. Finally a fifth prisoner was then released as he had formed a rash over his body in relation to his experience in the mock prison whereby he was treated badly (Levine, 2007). All of these prisoners obviously had been affected psychologically which is what led to their exit, and also shows the monstrosity of this experiment when compared with the ethical standards and procedures it should have been following, where no volunteer should be damaged at all in anyway, these volunteers had been harmed hugely. Then there is the behaviour of the guards, whom were the reason for the anxiety and depression seen from the prisoners. They all took their role of power and used it on prisoners from making erratic rules and decisions to making them perform monotonous work duties, one being picking out thorns from blankets which were only there in the first place because the guards had dragged them through thorn bushes.

Other tasks given were cleaning toilets with no protection on their hands and to do push ups with the guard’s foot resting on their backs; also they were told when to stop laughing (Levine, 2007). All happiness they could’ve felt was dragged out of them by the behaviour and antic of the mock guards and the assumed role in which they played. The whole scenario became too real to several of the prisoners they actually began to forget that it was not real and had asked if they could forfeit the money they were to be given for taking part in order to be released. It wasn’t only the prisoners and guards who got wrapped up in the world of the mock prison set up but Zimbardo himself, the researcher who created this whole experiment (Levine, 2007). When he eventually realised, after six days of how far the experiment had gone, he ended it. Ethically this experiment was over the line in many ways. Both roles the volunteers undertook; guards and prisoners, suffered from this experiment with stress that was placed on them as well as being damaged psychologically.

They were deceived due to lack of forms being filled out and the whole situation of what was going to go on during the experiment was not addressed properly and wholly. The fact also that the experiment should be safe and not harmful to anyone was completely eradicated once the experiment began because firstly the prisoners took a hard time from the guards which was a complete violation of the ethical code as prisoners were completely affected mentally and physically and also the fact that Zimbardo himself got wrapped up in the situation destroyed the experiment of being a safe one as he was too involved as well (Xavier, 2008). Both the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison experiment were taken too far and shows people what can happen in environments such as these, especially Stanford prison experiment where Zimbardo did not know himself what was actually going to occur during the experiment therefore he could not acknowledge beforehand, which lead to breach of ethics.

However he did show that when people do get into their roles, like prisoner and guards they also take up that of their real behaviours and attitudes which is why everything that occurred in the experiment happened (McLeod, 2008). I.e. the prisoner’s power getting beyond them resulting in them harming the prisoners, and the prisoners actually began believing they were real life prisoners. The fact that both experiments were approved of before they went ahead shows a lot because you cannot predict what will actually happen within the experiment, especially using the Stanford prison experiment as an example, where things went horrifically bad for all, and all with approval from ethical board as they obviously didn’t know, like Zimbardo himself, the extremes it would go to. With the Milgram experiment It shows that unlike the Stanford prison experiment its experiment did not give the volunteers long term psychological affects however it still breached ethical guidelines as he deceived and also the teachers within the experiment, during it, were under stress which is also a breach of ethics as the volunteers should not feel anything such.


Annas, G. J. (1992). The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation. New York: Oxford University Press. Blass, T. (2004). The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic Books. Cohen, B. C. (2010). The Ethics Of Using Medical Data From Nazi Experiments. Jewish Law Articles. Cox, S. (2008). Results, Applications and Criticisms of Zimbardo’s Study. Lessons from the Stanford Prison Experiment. Freyhofer, H. H. (2005). The Holocaust and the Origin of the Nuremberg Medical Code. New york: Peter Lang. Levine, R. (2007). The evil that men do. American Scientist . McLeod, S. (2008). Zimbardo – Stanford Prison Experiment. Simply psychology . Milgram, S. (2004). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (Perennial Classics) [Paperback]. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. Shuttleworth, M. (2008). Milgram experiment ethics. Retrieved July 17th, 2012, from Experiment Resources:
http://www.experiment-resources.com/milgram-experiment-ethics.html Xavier, R. (2008, January 5th). The Stanford Prison Experiment: Exploring the Ethical Issues. Retrieved July 18th, 2012, from Yahoo: http://voices.yahoo.com/the-stanford-prison-experiment-exploring-ethical-563843.html

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