Was the Milgram experiment ethical given today's human subject standards?

John Daniel's Personal Reflections on The Milgram's (1963) Behavioral study of obedience: Its Ethical Implications On Choosing Research Methodologies

Published on:
Categories: Life Coaching, Culture

In this writer’s opinion, the Milgram (1963) experiment was highly unethical given today’s ethical guidelines and human subject standard.

In taking such a position it is imperative to establish some frame of reference as to what constitutes ethical behavior. According to Gall, Gall and Borg (2007), “Ethics is a branch of philosophy concerned with questions of how people ought to act toward each other, which pronounces judgments of value about actions and develops rules to guide ethical choices” (p. 68). In this regard, of particular importance in this experiment, is the experimenter’s responsibility to “balance his career and scientific interests against the interests of his prospective subjects” (Baumrind, 1964, p. 421). From an ethical point of view, there were myriad compromises on both the experimenter’s ethical responsibilities as well as the psychological and emotional well-being of the subjects. One vivid account of the level of trauma experienced by one subject is detailed in the study.

I think he’s trying to communicate, he’s knocking…Well it’s not fair to shock the guy…these are terrific volts. I don’t think this is very humane…Oh, I can’t go on with this; no, this isn’t right. It’s a hell of an experiment. The guy is suffering in there. No, I don’t want to go on. This is crazy. [Subject refused to administer more shocks.] (p. 376).

On reading the graphic details of the experiment, deceptive research methodology lies at its core. According to Gall et al. (2007), “Deception is an act of creating a false impression in the minds of research participants through such procedures as withholding information, establishing false intimacy, telling lies, or using accomplices” (p. 71). Milgram (1964) and his colleagues solicited subjects through “newspaper advertisement and direct mail solicitation” (p. 372), and did so under the guise that “they were to participate in study of memory and learning at Yale University” (p. 372). Ethically, there was no informed consent sought, and the participants were deceived with respect to the withholding information and outright telling lies. What problem(s) can you identify in the Milgram experiment that conflict with the Christian principals and guidelines for treating others?

A number of issues that conflict with Christian principles can be observed in the Milgram experiment including human deception, lies, emotional, psychological and human insensitivity, manipulation, and self-interests to mention a few. Apart from what was alluded to above, the Milgram (1964) study was “to systematically vary the factors believed to alter the degree of obedience to the experimental commands” (p. 372), yet subjects were made to believe it was “a study of memory and learning” (p. 372). Hence, there was outright deception and lying. Moreover, these steps were taken intentionally. According to Milgram (1964), the apparatus and instruments used in the experiment to convey the impression of electrical shocks “were carefully handled to insure an appearance of authenticity” (p. 373).

In terms of the Christian approach to humankind, there is a woeful lack of sensitivity through deliberately traumatizing the subjects. According to Milgram (1994), Many subjects showed signs of nervousness in the experimental situation, and especially upon administering the more powerful shocks. In a large number of cases the degree of tension reached extremes that are rarely seen in sociopsychological laboratory studies” (p. 375).

Finally, in terms of self-interests, this was blatantly evident. The callous nature in which Milgram (1964) reports the deceptive solicitation, research design, experimental methodology, and the graphic instances of subject trauma is to say the least shocking. Moreover, to use terminology such as “interview and dehoax” (p. 374) clearly indicates self-interests. Milgram (1964) further states, “after the interview, procedures were undertaken to assure that the subject would leave the laboratory is a state of well-being” (p. 374).


Baumrind, D. (1964). Some thoughts on ethics of research: After reading Milgram’s behavioral study of obedience. American Psychologist, 19(6), 421-423. Retrieved from PsycARTICLES.

Gall, M. D., Gall, J. P., & Borg, W. R. (2007). Educational Research: An Introduction. (8th ed). Boston: Pearson.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371–378. Retrieved from PsychINFO.