Milgram’s Studies on Obedience to Authority and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison
Milgram’s studies on obedience to authority and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment are social psychology experiments conducted for specific research objectives. Milgram’s experiment was conducted by Psychologist Stanley Milgram of Yale University to measure the willingness of those who participated to obey authority, while Zimbardo’s experiment was conducted by a team of researchers in Stanford University led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo to measure the causes of conflict between prisoners and prison guards. These studies have impact on conformity, human participants and the principles of APA Ethical Principles and code of ethics. They are controversial and have various arguments for and against them.
The two studies revealed impressionability, conformity and obedience of people towards authority. When people are subjected to legitimizing ideology or given institutional and social support, they tend to become obedient to authority. In Zimbardo experiment, prisoners were subjected to psychological torture by prison guards at the basement of Stanford University’s Psychology Department (Griggs, 2014). Those who obeyed were given special treatment. Most of the prisoners accepted the psychological torture and harassed their fellow prisoners who refused to participate. According to Zimbardo, the participants adapted to their roles in the prison as prisoners accepted the authoritarian measures of the prison guards.
In the Milgram’s experiment, there were three participants, an experimenter, the subject (teacher) and a confederate (learner). The Experimenter forced the teacher to ask the learner some questions and for the ones he failed, he was administered with electric shocks (Blass, 1999). The teacher and the learner were in different rooms. In reality, the learner did not get the shocks but the teacher and the observers believed that he received the shocks because he screamed every time the electric shock was administered. Although the teacher believed that his learner was going through a lot of pain, he did not stop because the experimenter told him that he had to do so whether the learner liked it or not. 65% of the participants performed the high voltage shock administration although they were uncomfortable with it. They were disturbed, trembled, groaned and showed all levels of stress and tension throughout the experiment but they did not stop the experiment. This shows that people conform and obey authority no matter what they go through.
These experiments had a significant impact on the human participants. The participants of both experiments were psychologically disturbed and distressed. In the Zimbardo experiment, the prisoners did not like the harassment given by the guards, and the guards were not happy with the harassment. They felt distressed and two participants abandoned the experiment early. In the Milgram’s experiment, the human participants who acted as teachers were uncomfortable and disturbed (Blass, 1999). They experienced tension and stress because they thought that they were causing a lot of pain on the learners. As they administered the electric shocks they were seating, groaning, trembling, biting their lips, and stuttering. These behaviours show that they were psychologically disturbed by their actions.
These and other controversial research studies have shaped the principles and standards in the current APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Ethics. The Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct of Psychologists provided by the APA to guide the conduct of psychologists in their research, teaching, supervision, social intervention, counseling, etc (American Psychological Association, 2010). One of the principles of APA code of ethics is Beneficence and Nonmaleficence which requires psychologists benefit and safeguard the rights and welfare of those they interact. When the psychologists in Zimbardo and Milgram’s experiments interact with their subjects, they cause harm to the participants which is against the ethical principles of the APA. Secondly, the principle of fidelity and responsibility requires psychologists to develop trust with the people they work with (American Psychological Association, 2010). The psychologists carrying out Stanford and Milgram’s experiments did not show scientific and professional responsibility to gain trust from those who worked with them. The fact that the participants in Milgram’s experiment were uncomfortable shows that they did not trust the psychologists who instructed them. Therefore, such controversial experiments have negative impact on the principles of APA and code of ethics because they seem to go against those principles.
One of the arguments for the Zimbardo and Milgram’s experiments is that they are real-life experiments which show how people react to authority in real life (Blass, 1999). They are therefore applicable and realistic. Supporter of the experiments also argue that they were performed by participants who consented to the experiment; they were not forced to carry out the experiment (Raiten-D’Antonio, 2010). However, arguments against the experiments primarily suggest that they are against the code of ethics and ethical principles of psychologists. Milgram’s experiment caused extreme emotional stress (Raiten-D’Antonio, 2010). Prisoners and prison guards in the Zimbardo experiment were also sad and emotionally traumatized. Some of them were removed prematurely due to their trauma. Griggs (2014) suggests that the psychological torture of the prisoners was against the ethical principles of psychologists.
The information obtained from the experiments is relevant and applicable to conformity and obedience to authority, but it is not worth the human risks. It seems that human beings were sacrificed for the sake of psychological experiment, which is against human rights and the code of ethics of psychologists. Experiments should not harm those who participate despite the accuracy of their outcomes.
American Psychological Association (2010). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association
Blass, T. (1999). The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29 (5), 955–978.
Griggs, R.A. (2014). Coverage of the Stanford Prison Experiment in introductory psychology textbooks. Teaching of Psychology 41, 195–203.
Raiten-D’Antonio, T. (2010). Ugly as sin: The truth about how we look and finding freedom from self-hatred. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications.