Consider whether obedience research is unethical
The aim of the Milgram’s experiment was to measure the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.
40 males aged between 20 and 50 years of age. They were obtained by responding to a newspaper advertisement which asked for volunteers to participate in a study of learning at Yale University. They were paid $4.50 to take part in the experiment.
Two people would be introduced (one would be a confederate) and would draw lots to see who went where, they were told one person would sit in front of a device that could shock the other person, and the other would sit in a separate room being shocked. The only form of contact was a microphone system, there was no visual contact.
The “Subject” who was sat in front of a box that would supposedly give the other person an electric shock and could shock the learner at different outputs: slight shock (75 volts), moderate shock (120 volts), strong shock (150 volts), very strong shock (180 volts), intense shock (270 volts), extreme intensity shock (315), danger: severe shock (330) Then another switch marked ‘XXX’ (450 volts).
If the participant asked to stop experiment, whether it be; ‘should I continue administering shocks’, or some other indication that he did not wish to go on, he would be told to continue with a sequence of ‘prods’ e.g. Prod 1: ‘Please continue’ or ‘Please go on’; Prod 2: ‘The experiment requires that you continue’; Prod 3: ‘It is absolutely essential that you continue’; Prod 4: ‘You have no choice, you must go on’.
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The findings where shocking. All 40 of the participants obeyed up to 300 volts at which point 5 refused to continue. Four more gave one more shock before refusing; two stopped at the 330 volts level and one each at 345, 360 and 375 volts. Therefore, a total of 14 participants defied the experimenter, and 26 obeyed. Overall, 65% of the participants gave shocks up to 450 volts (obeyed) and 35% stopped sometime before 450 volts.
Orne and Holland claimed that the research lacked experimental realism, meaning that the experimental set up was not believable. They thought the participants were aware that the electric shocks were not real, thus, the research lacked internal validity. However, the participants’ stress reactions contradict this. (Orne & Holland claimed the participants were just playing along to please the experimenter – demand characteristics.) Orne & Holland also claimed that the research lacked ecological validity.
A variation of this experiment has also been carried out by Hofling. The aim was to investigate whether or not nurses would obey an order from a doctor that went against hospital regulation and was contrary to safe practice.
The study was carried out in a real hospital with real staff. An unaware nurse was phoned by an unknown doctor and asked to administer 20mg if Astrofen (non-lethal sugary drug) so that it would take affect before the doctor arrive. If the nurse obeyed she would be breaking hospital rules, she would be giving twice the maximum dose and the drug it’s self was not on the ward list for that day.
Hofling found that 21 out of 22 nurses obeyed the doctor until they were stopped by a confederate nurse. When they were asked why they obeyed, they said that a similar scenario has occurred before and that when they disobeyed doctors can get angry. This experiment has realism as it is a field experiment.
The overall findings from both experiments is that people are much more inclined to go against their moral or ethical beliefs if they are given orders by respected authority figures (Legitimate authority).
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They also believed that if something did go wrong they would be able to blame the authority figure in question as it was that person who gave them the order (Agentic Shift).