A major factor to the argument of the study’s lack of ethics is the intensive emotional distress and deep conflict, which the participants were subject to, due to the research procedure. The research procedure called for participants (or teachers) to give ‘learners’ electric shocks of increasing voltage when a wrong answer was given to their question, increasing from 15 volts to, eventually, 450 volts, with warnings such as ‘Danger severe shock’ amongst the descriptions. As the experiment went on and the voltages increased, subjects began to show signs of being highly disturbed and distressed. Milgram noted, “Persons were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, and groan as they found themselves increasingly implicated in the experimental conflict.” (Milgram, 1965, cited in Public and Private Conformity). These actions show how deeply distressed the participants were. The participants themselves questioned the ethics of the study at the time. Milgram described instances where subjects became engrossed in the technical machinery, possibly seeing themselves as mere technicians so as to transfer ethical responsibility to the experimenter, (Milgram, Obedience to Authority, 1974). Milgram termed this an ‘agentic state’, the participants stop seeing themselves as responsible and see themselves as an agent for another, i.e. the experimenter. Milgram also used the term ‘Counteranthropomorphism’ – where subjects come to view the experiment as an entity unto itself, divorced from human control. The participants dehumanised the learners, muttering things such as ‘why doesn’t the dumb guy get it right?’.
In each experiment, subjects ‘averted their eyes (and often their heads – sometimes in an awkward and conspicuous manner) from the subject” (Milgram, 1974). The fact that they were causing someone pain was extremely distasteful to the participants to the extreme that they went to ridiculous lengths to avoid looking at the consequences of what they had done, though they continued to give shocks.
All these factors combine to make the study unethical in some views; as such profound distress cannot be forgotten or assuaged by merely being told that the whole study was a deception. After the experiment was concluded, there was reconciliation between the teacher and learner to prove no harm was done and a debriefing from the experimenter, to help participants understand what the study was actually about. There was no recorded psychological support for any lasting effects that may have been caused by the experiment, which counts against the study as the participants long-term sanity is vital. Although participants underwent highly emotional distress during the experiment, 83.7% of the subjects involved indicated they were happy to have participated, whilst a mere 1.3% admitted to being sorry to have participated, (Milgram, 1964).
Though many find the use of electrical shocks to be abhorrent, electric shocks are not a foreign concept to psychological experiments. It is widely accepted that certain levels of ‘harmless pain’ is a small price to pay for scientific knowledge and new discoveries. Thus, Milgram deemed participants emotional distress as ‘necessary pain’, classing it as an unforeseen by-product of the study’s scientific inquiry. In reference to the profoundly…