Ethics & Research

Stanley Milgram’s experiment “Obedience to Authority” was designed to test a person’s conscious vs. their obedience to authority. The study involved several men who were broken up into pairs, introduced to each other, and then one was made a “teacher” and a “learner”. The “learner” was actually in on the experiment, and after introduction all his responses were automated sounds of pain when the “teacher” was forced to shock him for giving wrong answers during the experiment. The “teacher” was forced to choose between following the commands of the authoritative scientist leading the experiment and continue to hurt the learner, or to listen to the learner and stop the experiment despite the scientist’s orders. Milgram found that “ people tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and / or legally based” and that 65% of the “teachers” continued to listen to authority even when they knew they were causing pain (source). Though the subject of the study is to test a person’s conscious, morals, and ethics, I do not believe that the study itself was unethical. Milgram made a point to have the “teacher” and “learner” reacquaint after the experiment was over so that the “teacher” could make sure they were okay, so that any harm done to the “teacher”’s conscious thinking they had caused someone pain would be erased, and the “learner” was never in harm’s way to begin with.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment” by Philip Zimbardo is one of the most famous unethical social science cases in history. He created a mock prison at Stanford University and divided ordinary students randomly into “guards” and “prisoners”. The purpose of this experiment was to see if the environment would change otherwise ordinary student’s behavior toward each other. The experiment gave the guards uniforms and sunglasses to hide behind and dehumanizing the prisoners by having them arrested, stripped, and given numbers instead of named. The guards abused their authority over the prisoners almost immediately, despite knowing from the beginning of the experiment that they hadn’t actually done anything wrong, and the study was shut down within 6 days because of the amount of psychological damage it caused on its participants. Philip Zimbardo and the other experimenters involved did not set up enough of an ethical code of conduct or guidelines to protect the participants, and the experiment ended up causing many nervous breakdowns. Our textbook states that “ during a study, sociologists must ensure the safety of participants and immediately stop work if a subject becomes potentially endangered on any level” (Openstax, pg. 43) and because Zimbardo did not do this, the experiment was highly unethical.

I do believe that both Zimbardo and Milgram’s results from their experiments are definitely interesting and the knowledge is worth knowing in the field of sociology. Since Milgram’s experiment did not do much damage to it’s participants, I believe that the experiment was worth the knowledge it provided. Zimbardo’s, however, caused more damage to the participants than what the knowledge it provided was worth, and I believe there were probably better ways to find that knowledge in other, more ethical studies.

If I were a professional sociologist, some of the things I might do experiments on researching are gender inequalities, and differences between genders vs. social perceptions, because it’s something I find very interesting. However, I also find the subject of ethics and morals fascinating so that would be an interesting field to do research in as well.

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