Home/Essays Examples/Psychology/Psychological Experiments by Milgram and Zimbardo: Ethical Issue

Psychological Experiments by Milgram and Zimbardo: Ethical Issue

Psychology is a branch of science that investigates the mechanisms of behavior and tries to explain them. Its results to a considerable degree are theoretical but not practical. It gives the right to argue that many theoretical experiments are not precise and objective. That is why practical experiments are of great value for psychologists. In this aspect, we cannot but mention the researches by prominent psychologists, Philip George Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram. They both conducted their researches in the common field: the relationship between obedience and authority. Moreover, Zimbardo and Milgram proved their theoretical thesis practically: by means of experiments. Still, the ethical question about the legality and appropriateness of the experiments is one of the most topical in the contemporary psychological world. Many experts argue that the Stanford prison experiment is very close in its essence to the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures. Let us examine what is so common in the two psychological experiments of two different scientists.

First of all, the main thing which is common in both experiments is the aspect of research. Conducting the Stanford prison experiment Zimbardo tried to discover the mechanism of interrelation between prisoners and guards. In other words, it referred to the sphere of subordination, and relations between superior and inferior people. The second experiment, on obedience to authority figures, investigated the level of obedience and ability for independent thinking in a critical situation.

Another common trait of the two experiments was unexpected results for both researchers. For example, in the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures, it was expected that only a small percentage of people under the test who performed the role of “teachers” would follow the instructions of the experimenter. Still, Milgram was shocked by the results: more than sixty percent of “teachers” administered the limit 450 volts shock even though “learners” asked to stop the experiment because of pain.

The second experiment was also a shock for its conductor: it had to be finished in six days instead of two weeks. Although a part of people who performed the role of guards was not allowed to violate the “prisoners”, they led the second group of people to emotional and physical disorders.

And finally, the most important common feature of the two experiments is the question of moral and ethical legality. Of course, two experiments cannot be compared in full. The experiment by Milgram was more theoretical than practical: the “learners” did not experience any pain because their torment was just a performance. Another question is whether the consequences of the experiment were safe for the “teachers”; there was a high risk of mental disorder for them. Undoubtedly, the participants of the experiment were under big pressure. Many experts, as well as other members of the society, argued that the experiment was not to be allowed on the ground that it was dangerous and immoral from the point of view of professional and universal ethics.

The Stanford prison experiment is also criticized by many people. First of all, the essence of the experiment was rather dubious. The people under the test were divided into two groups: the group of prisoners and guards. The experiment was to be held no more than twelve days. But it was broken within six days. Some people argue that the experiment has been unsuccessful because of its immoral essence. While experts admit that the experiment was mistaken from the beginning. Zimbardo did not take into account the fact that the group of people who performed the role of “guards” would act in such a way as they were expected but not as ordinary guards from common prisons. In other words, the experiment did not represent the natural developments and results which could be observed in a similar situation.

Nevertheless, let us look at the two experiments by Zimbardo and Milgram from another point of view and estimate their true worth. On the one hand, after the experiment on obedience to authority figures by Milgram many people who were under the test and performed the role of “teachers” thanked the scientist. They argued that thanks to the experiment they understood the importance of self-confidence and control. The thing is that the majority of them felt uncomfortable following the instruction of the experimenter: they wanted to interrupt the research, but they lacked the strength of will. On the other hand, Milgram proved that the mechanism of obedience lay in the realization of responsibility for actions.

As for the second experiment, it added argumentations to the theory of the situational attribution of behavior. In other words, according to the results of the experiment, human behavior is more influenced by situational circumstances rather than inner position and ethics. Of course, the results of the two experiments are rather disputable. Moreover, many experts admit that interpretations of the results by psychologists were more subjective than unbiased. Still, both experiments allowed experiencing the feelings of people who, on the one hand, are under the pressure of authority, and, on the other hand, of prisoners and guards.

Works Cited

Zimbardo, Philip George. Stanford Prison Experiment. n.p. 1999.