Deception and lack of informed consent
One limitation of Milgram’s study into obedience is the ethical issues of deception and lack of informed consent.
Milgram deceived his participants by telling them that they were involved in a study of the effects of punishment on learning, rather than telling them the true purpose of the experiment. This also effectively denied participants the right to informed consent.
These issues highlight that Milgram’s study had questionable ethics.
Despite this, many of the participants subsequently felt they had learned something of personal importance from their participation.
Right to withdraw
Another important ethical issue is the right to withdraw if at any point during the study participants change their mind about participating.
In Milgram’s study it was not clear to what extent participants felt that they had the right to withdraw. Milgram claimed that participants were free to leave at any time, as demonstrated by the fact that some people did leave. Others argue that the ‘prods’ from the experimenter made this very difficult for some participants as they felt they had no choice about continuing.
This is a criticism of Milgram’s study as they might have felt forced into doing something they didn’t want to do and so the study wouldn’t show the full extent to which they would obey.
Protection from psychological harm
Baumrind claimed that Milgram placed his participants under great emotional strain causing psychological damage to them that could not be justified.
However Milgram defended himself as he didn’t know prior to the study that such high levels of distress would be caused. Also he asked participants afterwards if they found the experience distressing and interviewed them again a year later. 84% felt glad to have participated and 74% felt they had learned something of personal importance.
This shows that Milgram didn’t intend to cause such high levels of distress and that instead of the participants being caused psychological harm they also learned a valuable lesson.
One limitation of Milgram’s research is the doubts about the internal validity. This is supported by Orne and Holland’s research.
They claimed that participants in psychological studies have learned to distrust experimenters because they know that the true purpose of the experiment may be disguised. For example, despite the learners cries of pain, the experimenter remains cool and distant, which leads the participant to suppose that the victim cannot be suffering any real harm.
This would explain why so many participants were prepared to administer shocks therefore making the results unreliable.
However Milgram challenged this interpretation, as his post experimental interviews showed that during the study, the vast majority had believed they were giving real shocks and that the victims distress was likewise real which proves Milgram’s study was valid.
Another limitation of Milgram’s study is that it isn’t in a realistic setting. This is supported by Hoffling et al.’s research
Nurses were given an order that contravened hospital regulation in a number of ways and 21 out of 22 (95%) nurses did as requested.
This therefore shows that obedience does occur in real-life settings.
However Rank and Jacobson also asked nurses to carry out an irregular order but this time the drug was familiar and the nurses were allowed to consult with peers. 89% refused showing that in a more realistic setting obedience levels would fall.
Recent replications of Milgram’s study investigate the relevance of the study.
A 2007 study done by Burger found levels of obedience almost identical to those found my Milgram 54 years earlier.
This shows that Milgram’s findings still appear to apply as much as they did back in the early 1960s
The obedience alibi
The external validity of Milgram’s research as an explanation of real-life atrocities is challenged by David Mandel.
This claim is based on Christopher Browning’s detailed analysis of Reserve Police Battalion 101 for example the commander announced for his men to carry out a mass killing of Jews and there was a presence of all the factors Milgram claimed would increase defiance only a small minority of men felt uneasy about the killing and took up other duties.
Mandel has used this information to argue that Milgram’s conclusion of situational factors which effect the outcome of obedience are not caused by real-life events.
Reserve Police Battalion 101
Major Wilhelm Trapp, Commander of WW2 battalion
Proximity of the victim-all factors that increase defiance, small minority took up other duties
Proximity of the authority figure-At a massacre, killers were alone as they walked them to a killing site and then shot them. Should have produced empathy as face-to-face relationship
Presence of the allies-aware of those who extricated themselves from the killing but continued doing so.
Increasing the ‘teacher’s’ discretion-seemed to enjoy the opportunities they had to exert complete power over their victims