40 Years of Research Ethics: Milgram Makes Waves

by Avery Avrakotos, education and policy manager, and Meryn Robinson, education and membership services

Since its founding in 1974, PRIM&R’s highest priority has been to provide those charged with ensuring research protections, as well as those involved in the design and implementation of research protocols, with the education, practical tools, and cutting-edge strategies needed for their work protecting subjects. As we celebrate our 40th anniversary, we are reflecting upon four decades of connecting and protecting and we are recounting some of the events that have shaped the field’s rich history in our 40 Years of Research Ethics series.

For many involved in research or psychology, the name Stanley Milgram is a household name. In January 1974, psychologist Stanley Milgram, PhD, published a book titled Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View in which he wrote about the findings from the well-known experiments he conducted at Yale University starting in 1961.

Many are familiar with the premise of Dr. Milgram’s research: participants adopted the role of “teacher” in a staged test of memory and learning and were instructed by a man in a white lab coat to administer an electric shock to a person identified as the “learner.” For every wrong answer, the learner was given a shock, which increased in voltage for every successive wrong answer. But the learners, unbeknownst to the participants, were actors feigning pain and not actually being shocked. Even so, in the face of shouts of pain, 62% of the participants obediently followed the instructions of the individual in the lab coat and continued to shock the “learners” until the highest voltage on the scale was reached.

The Milgram experiments, and their unsettling conclusions about how people remain obedient despite being asked to perform morally questionable actions, were particularly resonant as they coincided with the trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann. Ultimately, the results of Dr. Milgram’s research, as well as the study’s design, sparked considerable controversy.

PRIM&R had the opportunity to have Dr. Milgram speak at our 1979 conference titled Behavioral and Social Science Research and the Protection of Human Subjects. Dr. Milgram led a workshop titled, The Role of Deception in Research. As you read through the text of his talk, we encourage you to reflect on some of the questions raised by his experiments: Is there an appropriate role for deception in scientific research? How can it be ethically justified without compromising the autonomy and respect that is due to research participants?