Ethical Interpretation of Unethical Studies

02 Apr 2018

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Mini Research Proposal: Ethical Interpretation of Unethical Studies

Milgram’s obedience study is unethical for a few reasons, and one of them is the deception of the respondents about the nature of the research (McLeod, 2007). As such, the respondents were informed that the study would deal with the learning in general, focusing on the respondent as a person in charge of the learning-teaching interaction with another individual who is actually a researcher’s “accomplice” (McLeod, 2007). In fact, Milgram’s study was conducted to investigate the terrors of the Second World War in terms of the Nazi experiments and the readiness of people to harm (in any possible way, including emotional and physical destruction, and manslaughter) a person they do not probably know (McLeod, 2007). The study was based on the ability of a person to follow another person’s (experimenter or experimenter’s assistant) instructions and encouragement in continuing an experiment, which required punishing a learner for wrong answers (McLeod, 2007). On the one hand, the scenario of the study excluded any possibility that a respondent could think about the harm he brings to another person, because they thought that the experiment was about learning rather than about cruelty, obedience, and responsibility. On the other hand, the study made it possible to see that bearing responsibility for negative consequences of some actions may be the key element in obedience, connecting such a tendency in human behaviour to Nazi’s actions towards prisoners during the WWII. As stated in the study by McLeod (2007), which is aimed at summing up the methodology and results of Milgram’s obedience study, shock administered to a learner was increased with the help of prods given to a respondent by an experimenter:

The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock. (n.p.)

While bearing in mind the information about the shock generator and the number of marks on it, it is actually necessary to remember only about the two marks (shock and severe shock) (McLeod, 2007). In this respect, one of the major research data collection methods employed by Milgram (McLeod, 2007), and applied in further analyses, such as the study by Beauvais, Courbet, and Oberle (2012), are based on experiments/trials. At the same time, experiments are an integral part of a psychological research, as stated in the studies by Eysenck (2009) and Coolican (2014) that emphasize the importance of ethical approach in any psychological research.

An idea for an ethical research methodology, building upon Milgram’s approach would be far from adequate or accurate, because it would not help a researcher to receive correct results. The reason for this gap lies in the human nature and the desire of people to seem better and kinder than they usually are. No confidentiality would make respondents to reveal their actual violent behaviours unless an experiment is built in a way to reveal those. Zimbardo’s prison study also referred to as Stanford prison experiment is one of the unethical methods to show how human nature can be revealed when people are free to do whatever they want, and they are told nothing about negative consequences and responsibility for their actions. Ethical experiments are built on complete awareness of respondents about what they do and why they do it. There is no possibility that an ethically healthy study would deceive respondents or peers about the nature, methods, or tools of the study to make it look less inhuman, severe, or violent.

The modern research on obedience could be found in the following three peer-reviewed articles reflecting during a search the Internet using an engine like Google Scholar. Coolican (2014) suggests statistics as a way for data presentation in the article “Statistics - organising the data,” Eysenck (2009) demonstrates Fundamentals of Psychology by revealing the most adequate methods of researching obedience, while Horcajo, Brinol, and Petty (2014) offered “Multiple roles for majority versus minority source status on persuasion when source status follows the message.”

Even though observation may be more appropriate as a research data collection method for investigating obedience, it may be ineffective in its capacity to record all possible scenarios. In fact, a controlled trial is a more preferable study option for obedience study research, because participants should be fully informed about their roles and functions, as well as their rights and the actual purposes of the research (British Psychological Society, 2010). Based on the principles of the British Psychological Society’s (2010) Code of Human Research Ethics, a research that aims to investigate the obedience of individuals should incorporate “respect for the autonomy and dignity of persons, scientific value, social responsibility, [and] maximising benefit and minimising harm” (p. 7). In other words, there is no clear way to deceive a respondent and stay ethical during a research. Milgram’s experiment can be replicated in an ethical form, contributing to the modern research on human obedience essentially.

Mini Research Proposal

A study to investigate obedience should be based on a series of recorded interviews (questions adjusted during an interview depending on answers). Therefore, there can be a quantitative factor within the study, which would also contain Likert scale as a data measurement tool. Firstly, an interview should be synthesized using the most likely and unlikely scenarios of hypothetical and realistic situations that have happened and might happen under the most unlikely circumstances. For instance, a scenario of a participant being offered to join a gang that punishes criminals (known from a police database) that have escaped, or returned to criminal activities when on probation, or official law enforcement body cannot prove their guilt; a participant is offered anonymity when being a gang member, and money for every criminal punished (the participant should decide on the type of punishment). The most important part of the research should be assurance of the participants that all situations are hypothetical, and would not be used for judging their social responsibility, social skills, or psychological health. At the same time, respondents should complete a set of questions depending on their answers and options chosen as readiness to join the gang (ready or not; why? For the sake of justice or safety in the streets?), acceptance of money for every case (justice or financial reimbursement?), and the type of punishment (from catching to rather cruel actions). Finally, a respondent should be offered the same options in the same scenario, provided that he/she has accepted the gang membership with all the benefits and power, emphasizing that they would have a leader who would arrange everything with the authorities, or that the leader is given authority by the law enforcement units that cannot act in an explicit way against the organized crime groups.

The method should contain a clear interview with the first stage of scenarios and answers to hypothetical situations, and a second stage of scenarios, evaluating the extent to which a respondent is likely to change his/her decision about the situation if he/she does not have to bear responsibility. The research should also feature situations that appeal to justice, and other ethically and socially accepted concepts, as well as something unethical, such as bank robbery. In this case, it is necessary to analyze whether a respondent associates himself/herself with a media/TV/book/etc. character that acts as an obvious protagonist or antagonist. This is essential to identify, even if this would be measured and research in a subsequent study, because this one should focus on obedience.

The data should be analyzed with the help of statistical methods, including correlation and descriptive statistics. As such, after collection of data, it is necessary to measure whether respondents were likely to change their decision about situations when being informed about someone else bearing responsibility and giving orders/encouraging them to certain actions. The explanations also should be included, as it is essential to find out if a respondent were uncertain when giving answers in the first stage of the scenarios or he/she found lack of responsibility a reason to accept the scenario as interesting and worth participating. On the one hand, it is necessary to build a valid set of scenarios and interviews, train interviewers, and record the data correctly. On the other hand, interpretation of data might also involve analysis of the demographical aspect and the relation between obedience and gender, profession, age, or race/ethnicity, as well as social background.

Independent variable. Responsibility added in the second scenario.

Dependent variable. Acceptance/avoidance of the scenario when responsibility is added.

The correlation between the differences in answers to both stages of scenarios should demonstrate whether respondents are likely to change their mind, and if this is connected to responsibility factor, as well as obedience to authority of a leader, and lack of consequences for the respondent himself/herself. The findings of the research could show the demographical component in case the sample size is sufficient, because the current proposed scenario of research requires a large sample size or with random participants representing diverse layers of the population, connecting to their backgrounds, and possible negative experiences related to obedience or disobedience. In this respect, sampling should exclude psychologically unstable and unhealthy individuals that might jeopardise a study by demonstrating violent or inadequate behaviour.

The research methods used in the proposed study would incorporate British Psychological Society ethical standards in all stages of the research, starting with the sampling procedures, reception of written consent, and ending with the interactions between a researcher and a respondent.


Beauvais, J.-L., Courbet, D., & Oberle, D. (2012). The prescriptive power of the television host. A transposition of Milgram’s obedience paradigm to the context of TV game show. Revue européenne de psychologie appliquée (European Review of Applied Psychology), 62, 111–119.

Coolican, H. (2014), Research Methods and Statistics in Psychology, 6th edition Chapter 13 Statistics - organising the data.

Eysenck , M. W. (2009). Fundamentals of Psychology (1st ed.). Hove, England: Psychology Press. Chapter 25, 591–598 & 612–613.

Horcajo, J., Brinol, P., & Petty, R. E. (2014). Multiple roles for majority versus minority source status on persuasion when source status follows the message. Social Influence, 9(1), 37–51.

McLeod, S. (2007). The Milgram Experiment. Retrieved from

The British Psychological Society. (2010). Code of Human Research Ethics. Retrieved from

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