Essay: Ethical issues arising from the study of social influence

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  • Subject area(s): Psychology
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  • Ethical issues arising from the study of social influence
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“Milgram’s experiments undoubtedly helped define many ethical issues and triggered the debate regarding the ethics of research within psychology as a whole. Most of the ethical issues they raise also apply to other areas of social influence research”..

Are there any features of Milgram’s experimental procedure, which you would consider unethical? One way of approaching this is to ask yourself what you would have found objectionable/unacceptable, either during or after the experiment, if you had been one of the participants?

There were a few aspects of Milgram’s experiment that made it unethical. Deception was involved; participants were informed that they were testing the effect of discipline on concentration when in fact they themselves were the ones being tested on to research obedience to authority. I do feel that this deception was necessary for the purpose however it was still unethical. Something that was not necessary for the purpose was the breaking of the ethical guideline protection of participants. Many of the participants did not leave the experiment in the state they entered in. Causing participants unnecessary stress was very unethical and we have to consider whether the research was more important than the participant’s health. Baumrind (1964) was correct in saying that the participants of Milgram’s experiment had been abused and that not enough had been done to protect them from psychological damage.

Another ethical guideline was broken that too could have enhanced the stress of the participant. They were not allowed to withdraw from the experiment the experimenter pushed them to harm the victim of the “shocks”. However Milgram did redeem himself slightly as the participants were fully debriefed at the end and informed that their behaviour was normal. They were also reunited with the unharmed person they had believed they were giving shocks to. This helps Migrams case but does not excuse his actions.

Protection from harm

How could Zimbardo et al. defend themselves against this criticism in a way that Milgram could not?

Zimbardo et al. did acknowledge when the participants were showing signs of discomfort and they were allowed to go. They could withdraw form the experiment. Also it was not the nature of the experiment to harm the “prisoners” it was the volunteer prison guards that caused the trauma and many of them admitted to enjoying the control they had over the prisoners. The participants were strictly voluntary and were researched to check their medical conditions etc. The volunteers also signed a contract after being informed in detail the proceedings of the experiment. Zimbardo did do more than Milgram to try and prevent harm to the participant. Also there was no set-up experimenter pushing the guards on they did everything of their own free will. Due to this Zimbardo can defend himself by saying he did not influence or deceive anyone, much of the experiment stuck to the BPS guidelines it was the way of human nature that harmed the participants.

Deception and informed consent.

Given that it is important to understand the process involved in conformity and obedience (the end), can deception be justified as a means of studying them?.

Identify the deceptions that were involved in Asch’s, Milgram’s and Zimbardo et al.’s experiments? Do you consider any of these to be more serious /unethical that the others, and if so why?

I feel that deception is more acceptable in some circumstances than others. If the participant is deceived then it is important that it is considered how they would feel about the true nature of the experiment and whether it would bother them that they had contributed to research different to that of which they had originally thought. If the deception is need to reveal something personal about the participant which they would not share of their own free will then it is wrong to deceive.

The participant in Asch’s study was led to believe he was in a room full of other volunteers, however they were ‘stooges’ and were in on the experiment. I do not feel that this deception would have affected the participant psychologically and it was needed for the nature of the experiment. The participant may have felt embarrassed but I feel under the circumstances it was acceptable. I fail to see where Zimbardo deceived his participants except for the surprise arrests at the start; I do not see that as a great case of deception. They were fully aware of what they were doing and gave written consent knowing they would be harassed. Milgram’s deception was the most harmful to the participants however completely necessary for the experiment. They were led to believe they were electrocuting someone and heard fake screams. This caused distress to the participant. I feel this was unethical but sadly justified, as the experiment could not have produced the accurate results that it did without deception.

 Can deception ever be justified?

Do you think it is necessary for psychologists to have written codes of conduct and ethical guidelines? What do you consider to be their major functions?

I do feel that it is important to have some restrictions on these experiments. We must not forget we are experimenting on people who have lives beyond research. It is not fair to harm or change someone for research. The guidelines also encourage more people to take part in these experiments as they feel they now have some rights. Some of the guidelines have to be slightly broken for the nature of research. The most common of these is deception, as we cannot always obtain accurate results from someone who is in on the experiment. It would change the way they behave under observation if they are aware of it.

I believe the most important ethical guidelines to be protection of participants and withdrawal from the experiment. This would ensure that the participant is not harmed as a result of research and gives the participant some control over the experiment.

Functions of written codes of conduct and ethical guidelines.

You may recall that in and Spencer’s (1981) British replication of Asch’s conformity experiment, some of the participants were young offenders on probation, with probation officers as stooges. According to paragraph 3.5 would this be acceptable today?

According to paragraph 3.5 this would not be acceptable today, as we need to be sensitive with such a relationship. The participant will probably act differently in the situation of young offender meets prohibition officer. The participant will be in the agentic state and will feel obligated to comply with the authority figure. It would not be acceptable as when giving informed consent the participant may feel more pressure and sign against their will. Their free will is greatly affected by those in authority but it is the connection between them (the offender wants to impress the officer and does not want to provoke negativity on the part of the officer towards themselves.) that causes problems. This is unethical for the reason that if the participant is only giving consent because they feel that they will jeopardize their position with the probation officer if they don’t then they are not giving consent at all. Therefore they are taking part in something they don’t want to do or feel uncomfortable with. This could potentially link to the protection of participants guideline too, they could become psychologically damaged as a result of pressure, stress etc.

Acceptability of the replication of Asch study, by Perrin and Spencer (1981) today.

‘Active intervention’ is more like a ‘therapeutic’ measure than just good manners.’ Can you give examples of this second type of debriefing from both Milgram’s and Zimbardo et al’.s experiments.

Many of Milgram’s participants felt very distraught and concerned about Mr Wallace (the learner) Milgram used active intervention in the way of re-uniting the two to convince the participant that no shock had been administered. This is hugely significant as the participant would have never been completely satisfied with verbal clearance. Seeing the learner unharmed in the flesh was the only way to put their minds at rest. This may well have replaced all the feelings of stress with relief. They were also assured that their actions were completely normal and that others had done the same. However this is not really active intervention as it was all verbal and held no proof to reassure the participant. If Milgram had shown the participants the statistics of others then that would be active intervention and would have been more beneficial for the participant. Zimbardo et al. had nothing to reassure the participants about really by means of active intervention, as there was no deception. They only had to be told that their behaviour was normal and that the experiment was over and they could forget about it. However he did use active intervention to check their psychological and physical states after the experiment to ensure their were no long term side effects or delayed problems and if their were they could intervene again as it is his duty to ensure they are not changed in the long term due to Zimbardo’s experiment. The post-experimental questionnaires were issued several weeks, months later and then again at yearly intervals.

Summary of ethical issues arising from the study of social influence D8tVX6

v The most serious criticisms of Milgram’s obedience experiments have been ethical. This helped trigger the debate regarding the ethics of research within psychology as a whole.

v Accusations of failing to protect participants from harm can be dismissed, because the distress that Milgram’s participants received could not have been predicted and was not an intended or deliberate effect of the experimental procedure. However, this does not necessarily justify his continuation of the research.

v Participants were thoroughly ‘dehoaxed’ at the end of the experiment. They were assured that their behaviour was normal (if the obeyed) or supported them if they disobeyed. Milgram also argued that his participants were free to obey or disobey.

v Zimbardo believes that the prisoner participants suffered physical and psychological abuse for days at a time, whilst the guards had to deal with the fact that they had enjoyed abusing the participants. This relates to the broader issue of protecting the individual versus benefiting society. dc;

v Whilst deception may be commonplace, especially in social psychological experiments, it is unethical if it prevent participants from giving informed consent. However, participants who have been deceived generally approve of it retrospectively. Milgram considers this to be sufficient justification for its use, and others believe that deception may be the best/only way of obtaining valuable insights into human behaviour.

v The American Psychological Association (APA) and British Psychological Society (BPS) have produced several codes of conduct and ethical guidelines. These relate to different aspects of psychologists’ work, including conducting research with human participants.

v The Ethical Principles identifies several guiding principles, most importantly consent/informed consent, deception, debriefing and protection of participants.

v The BPS and APA codes and guidelines are periodically revised in the light of changing social and political contexts, such as changing views about individual rights. This indicates that there are no absolute of universal ethical truths. The change from ‘subject’ to ‘participant’ itself reflects a change in psychologists’ perception of the person.

v Even if the participant has been fully informed about experimental procedure, this does not guarantee informed consent. For example, the experimenter may be in a position of authority over the participant, who may be reluctant to withdraw from the experiment once it has started for fear of looking foolish.

Debriefing must take place at the earliest opportunity following the use of deception. The experimenter must ensure that the participants leave the experimental situation in at least as positive frame of mind that they entered the experiment in. This might sometimes necessitate active intervention, as used be both Milgram and Zimbardo et al.;

v Informed consent, minimal use of deception, debriefing, confidentiality, destruction of any records, and any other ethical principles are all designed to protect individual participants from physical and mental harm. As important as this is, there is a danger that research may harm the group to which the participant belongs.

Self-Assessment questions

5. a. ‘Informed consent’ means that the participant has been abundantly informed of the nature and purpose of the experiment and has given their consent to take part. They must sign something to prove the researcher has their consent. Debriefing, particularly important in cases of deception, takes place at the end of the experiment. It informs the participant of the results what they mean and how it relates to the experiment. If the participant has been deceived then it is important that they are told at this stage the true nature of the experiment. info

b. Milgram and Zimbardo’s experiments were different regarding informed consent in the following ways.

Milgram’s participants gave consent to what they thought was the experiment they did not actually give consent to the true experiment. This can also come under the breaking of the deception guideline. Zimbardo’s participants at least knew exactly what they were volunteering for.

Milgram’s participants were being paid to do the experiment, which would have probably made them give consent much easier than those participants of Zimbardo’s experiment. Zimbardo’s participants were strictly voluntary and signed a contract before entering the experiment. Milgram’s participants merely sent an application and I guess many people only did it for the money.

c. Baumrind one of Milgram’s fiercest critics argued that the rights and feelings of Milgram’s participants had been abused. The ‘protect participants from harm’ ethical guideline had been broken. However in doing this Milgram found out a great deal about the natural workings of the human mind. It was discovered how great the levels of obedient among many humans were. The breaking of ‘protect participants from harm’ occurred through deception and the participants were made to feel as thought they could not withdraw from the experiment, which is highly unethical, and another guideline Milgram broke.

d. I feel that it is necessary to make some sacrifices in order to help research and the deception on Milgram’s part was never intended to harm any of the participants.

‘understanding grows because we examine situations in which.

The end is unknown. An investigator unwilling to accept.

this degree of risk must give up the idea of scientific enquiry.’

Here Milgram is backing up his augment. The purpose of experimenting is to discover new things if we know the outcome beforehand there is no point in doing the experiment. How was Milgram to know the outcome and how it would affect the participants.

I feel that as long as deception is counterbalanced with intensive debriefing then there is not a problem. However there are some circumstances where I feel deception cannot acceptably be used. For instance if the deception is a cover up so that the experiment can find out something personal about the participant, something they would not have told by their own free will, then it is not tolerable.

Christensen (1988)reviewed studies of the ethical acceptability deception experiments and concluded that as long as deception is not extreme, participants do not seem to mind. He suggests that the widespread use of deception is justified, first because no one is apparently harmed and secondly there is little alternative with many experiments of this nature. I would have to say that I agree with this entirely. As long as the participant does not suffer in the long term and holds no regret over doing the experiment then it is suitable to use deception. I also agree with the fact that for many experiments such as Milgram’s deception is the only way. If the participants knew beforehand that the shocks were not real they would have all shocked the learner to 450 volts as they would not be afraid of hurting them. This is somewhat pointless and goes against what Milgram was originally trying to discover. The ‘Germans are different’ hypothesis was what he was testing. He wanted to explain why so many obeyed to Hitler and harmed other humans just because they were told to not because they wanted to.

We also have to consider the fact that under reasonable circumstances many people do not mind being deceived. Krupat and Garonzik (1994) reported that university psychology students who had been deceived at least once as participants in research, did not find the experience less enjoyable or interesting as a result. They also said they would be less upset at the prospect of being lied to or misled again (compared to those who had not been deceived.). So in conclusion it s alright to deceive if the cause is adequate, there is no alternative, the true issue would not offend, embarrass or harm the participant and they are fully debriefed and followed up with active intervention if needs be.

6. a. Deception means to conceal the truth from someone and is usually followed up with a lie to throw the person of the scent. Deception in terms of psychology and experiments means to issue the participant with a false experiment purpose yet still extract the necessary information without them being aware of it.

Protection from harm means that the participant must leave after the experiment in exactly the same state that they entered in. They must not be physically or psychologically damaged. The risk of harm must be no greater than that of the ordinary life of the participant. Participants must be asked about!

any factors in the procedure that might create a risk, such as pre-existing medical conditions, and cal1966’s structuralism theory.

must be advised of any special action they should take to avoid risk.

b. Debriefing is used for a number of reasons but mainly it links to deception. In the debriefing session the experimenter can come clean and reveal the true nature of the experiment. They must then clear up any queries the participant may have about what they now know. The participant must be fully aware of what it means now that the experiment purpose is different, sometimes active intervention is needed for this.

One of the reasons the codes of conduct/ethical guidelines are there is to encourage people to take part in these human experiments. If the person knows they will not be deceived or harmed etc and they have some written rights to back this up they will be more keen to enter themselves into research.

c. In Milgrams experiment the participants were not protected from harm as when they began to show real signs of distress at shocking the learner they were led to believe that they could not withdraw from the experiment. They were pushed on by an authority figure creating more stress (the experimenter was wearing a white coat which implies they are a figure of authority). This is very unethical and did not protect the participants in the slightest..

There were no real restrictions on the Zimbardo experiment, the participant prison guards were allowed to do what they liked to the prisoners. For example the guards had a head count in the middle of the night simply to disrupt the prisoners’ sleep, making them feel helpless and psychologically damaging them. Nothing was done to prevent this kind of thing and so the participants were not protected.

d. Many problems can occur in human research and much of the solutions are a matter of sorting priorities. For example, an experiment conducted on the tolerance of gay men by other heterosexual men could reveal (if they are deceived) that the heterosexual men are in fact tolerant of gays. However this may not please the heterosexual men at the debriefing when they are told the real experiment and the results. They may not want to be portrayed in that way and may fear that they will be looked upon as gay themselves. For this reason they may ask for their results to be destroyed. Now there is a dilemma. If the results are destroyed then as a whole it looks as if there is no gay tolerance from heterosexual men. This sends out the message to all men that it is wrong to abide gays and the prejudice becomes greater. However if the results are not destroyed and the message is put out there that many heterosexual men do accept gays then it is going against the BPS ethical guidelines and could lead to the participant being worried what people would think of him. This is not protecting the participant but is reliving the prejudice.

So we see it is a complex situation. Do we respect the wishes of the individual and have the results enhance chauvinism or look to the greater good and dismiss the individual. Many would say the last option, the greater good is more important which is a valid point however, if we begin to ignore the wishes of those who take part in these human experiments there maybe no volunteers for them in the future.

The codes of conduct do not really allow for such circumstances, it is merely a question of sticking to or breaking the guidelines. The confidentiality guideline has some leeway on the other hand as the records can be kept anonymous nevertheless some participants will insist that their records are destroyed and again we are left with a problem. Do we respect the wishes of the individual and enhance prejudice or do we look to the greater good and ignore the individual? Many would argue the last option to be the most productive, especially Brown (1997) who argues that the formal codes focus too narrowly on the risks of the individual, they neglect the questions about the risks to the group to which the participant belongs to. Although I do agree with this I also believe that if we do ignore the wishes of those participating in human experiments then there will be significantly less volunteers in the future for experiments such as these. It is the participants that supply us with valuable information, it is our duty to respect them to ensure they keep doing so.

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