False Ends and Dishonest Means: Milgram and the Ethics of the Shock Experiment

Yale University social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, wanted to know why decent, hard-working, and generally pleasant people would commit atrocities such as those that occurred under the NAZI government in Germany. He devised a test that has become one of the most notorious tests in the field of psychology. Since he published the results of his shock experiment, people have debated the ethics of it. The chief question is, do the ends justify the means. Do the findings of Milgram justify the questionable procedure that he used, or does possibly unethical data collection, discredit the findings for such data? Milgram’s experiment is perhaps the most important study of human obedience yet performed; however, his findings do not justify the unethical and dishonest nature of the experiment.

Even if scientific findings of an experiment are free from serious question of ethicality, Milgram’s experiment suffered from multiple operational flaws. This throws doubt on the reliability of his findings. During the experiment, participants that expressed a desire to stop were given one of four “prods” (Milgram, 1963). The prods were according to Milgram (1963):

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 other choice, you must go on.

The prods were always made in sequence: Only if Prod 1 had been unsuccessful, could Prod 2 be used.

In an analogous experiment by Haslam, Reicher, and Birney (2014),  it was found that “Prod 2 proved effective (unlike Prods 1 and 4) because it provided a rationale for continuation that was consonant with the shared identity that underpinned both leadership and followership.” In other words, Haslam, et al. (2014) found that people were not motivated to continue with the experiment because of the authority of the experimenter, but because of a want to further scientific knowledge. This disturbs the findings presented by Milgram (1963) that “the majority complied with the experimental commands,” because of the experimenter’s authority. Furthermore, Milgram, himself, admits (1964) that “In some variations 90% of subjects disobeyed.” This admission seems to prove that the experimental findings are inconsistent and cannot be seen as wholly reliable, as repeatability of results is a key to reliable scientific detail. However, even if Milgram’s results are taken as absolute truth, his methods were at best dishonest and at the worst out-rightly unethical.

The shock experiment remains one of the most questionable experiments of the latter half of the 20th century. Milgram failed to fully protect his test subjects for humiliation and harm (Baumrind, 1964). During the experiment Milgram failed to “safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally” (American Psychological Association [APA], 2010). Milgram made multiple statements that following the end of the experiment subjects were interviewed and went through a “dehoax” (Milgram, 1963 and Milgram, 1964).  However, Perry (2013) states, “Milgram used the term ‘dehoax’ loosely,” and that “Milgram’s notes indicate that he failed to immediately dehoax around 75 percent of his 780 subjects.” This shows that Milgram failed to properly  debrief his subjects, which is a major part of ethical experimentation according to the APA (2010) guidelines. In short, Milgram lied and mislead his participants, which is at best dishonest and at worst unethical. Yet, Milgram’s experiment remains despite its questionable nature an important study.

Though Milgram’s data alone may be unreliable and his experiment of questionable ethicality, it remains one of the most important experiments in social psychology. The levels of obedience shown in at least some of the experiments variations are a disturbing window into the power of obedience in modern society (Milgram, 1963). As Milgram (1963) pointed out, “obedience serves numerous productive functions.” However, as Milgram also showed obedience can be used negatively. Furthermore, the shock experiment also illustrates in some way the power of group pressure on individuals (Milgram, 1964). Yet, as Miller (2003) explained “it is not at all clear what implications they [Milgram’s results] are supposed to have with respect to the issue of the existence of global character traits.” The shock experiment that Milgram performed will likely remain one of the most important and debated experiments in psychology.

Stanley Milgram tested obedience using dishonest means to achieve false ends. His experiment may not have rested on the power of mere authority but on appeals to science (Haslam et al., 2014). Further, in different variations of the study Milgram himself found widely varied results of obedience (Milgram, 1964). Even if his results are taken as fact, his experiment is of highly questionable ethics. He failed to protect his test subjects (Baumrind, 1964). He did not properly debrief his test subjects (Perry, 2013), thus, further violating the APA guidelines for ethics (APA, 2010). However, despite questionable ethics and results, his the shock experiment remains one of the most important and debated experiments in social psychology.



American Psychological Association. Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/

Baumrind, D. (1964) Some Thoughts on Ethics of Research: After Reading Milgram’s “Behavioral Study of Obedience” In Huffman (2011). Psychology in Action (ed. 10). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & Birney, M. E. (2014) Nothing by Mere Authority: Evidence that in an Experimental Analogue of the Milgram Paradigm Participants are Motivated not by Orders but by Appeals to Science. Journal of Social Issues, 70 (3), 473-488. doi: 10.1111/josi.12072.

Lazarus, R. S. (1963). A Laboratory Approach to the Dynamics of Psychological Stress. Administrative Science Quarterly, 8(2), 192-213. doi: 10.2307/2390899

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience, The Bobbs-Merrill Reprint Series in the Social Sciences. Retrieved from http://www.columbia.edu/cu/psychology/terrace/w1001/readings/milgram.pdf (Reprint from The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67 (4), 371-378, 1963).

Milgram, S. (1964). Group Pressure and Action Against a Person. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 69(2), 137-143. Retrieved from http://patrick-fournier.com/d/cours12-6607.pdf

Milgram, S. (1964) Issues in the Study of Obedience: A Reply to Baumrind. In Huffman (2011). Psychology in Action (ed. 10). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Miller, C. (2003). Social Psychology and Virtue Ethics. The Journal of Ethics, 7(4), 365-392. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25115772

Perry, G. (2013). Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. New York: The New Press.

Romm, C. (2015). Rethinking One of Psychology’s Most Infamous Experiments, The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/rethinking-one-of-psychologys-most-infamous-experiments/384913/