The Ethics of Research Studies

By: Elizabeth Klein

For a long time, there were virtually no regulations protecting participants in research studies.  Psychologists and researchers could virtually do anything with participants as long as they volunteered.  With this lack of moral standards, the ethics present in such studies were often utterly disregarded.  As a researcher, especially a research psychologist, would you start to believe that the ends always justify the means?  Would you care more about your results or the people producing them?  Would you prioritize what’s right over pushing the limits of understood psychology?  Unfortunately, many psychologists in the 1900s chose research over ethics.  From this came some studies that succeeded in displaying human behavior, but yielded truly terrifying results.

One of the most famous psychological studies ever conducted was the Stanford Prison Experiment.  This experiment was conducted to provide insight on the psychological effects of prison roles and created a simulated prison environment to do so.  Volunteering participants were divided into two roles: prisoner or prison guard.  Prisoners were given ID numbers and chains to wear around their feet.  Guards were given free range to enforce prison rules how they liked.  Initially, both groups were somewhat uncomfortable with their new roles.  But then, the guards decided to discipline the prisoners by making them do push-ups; a form of punishment used in Nazi concentration camps.  Some guards even stepped on the backs of prisoners doing push-ups.

From then on, the situation worsened.  The next day, the prisoners staged a rebellion.  In response, the guards sprayed them with a fire extinguisher, stripped them naked, took away their beds, and forced them into solitary confinement.  They then implemented “privileged cells” for certain prisoners to create division.  Later, one prisoner began displaying signs of emotional distress.  Instead of unbiasedly investigating the problem, the guards assumed he was lying to get set free.  He told his fellow prisoners, “You can’t leave.  You can’t quit.”  Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the leader of the investigation, claimed that it took a while for them to finally believe his suffering and let him leave the prison.  Another prisoner was shunned for being “bad” so harshly that he would not leave the prison until he was reminded that it was all “just an experiment.”  For the most part, everyone involved made the prison their new reality.  They disregarded the study and disregarded their lives; all they thought about during the experiment was their new roles.  The study was stopped on its sixth day when Zimbardo was told it had gone too far.

The problem with the Stanford Prison Experiment was a mix of a lack of fully-informed consent and the abuse prisoners experienced.  While participants signed a form stating they understood that the study had risks, they had no idea the extent of the dangers of the experiment.  If they were told that they would not be allowed to shower, brush their teeth, wear undergarments, wash their hands, sleep in beds; if they were told that they would be sprayed with fire extinguishers, stepped on, forced to wear dresses, put in ankle chains, and placed in solitary confinement, it’s probable that they would not have signed that form of consent.  This leads into the fact that prisoners of the experiment were dehumanized.  Though the researchers themselves did not intend to harm or traumatize the prisoners in the study, they did by allowing the prison guards to abuse their powers.  The prisoners were intentionally humiliated, punished, mocked, and oppressed.  The only reason the study didn’t go on past six days was due to inappropriate guard behavior that took place after hours and his wife actually pointing out to Zimbardo that the experiment was unethical.

To make matters worse, Zimbardo breached the role of psychologist by putting himself into the study.  He acted as both a researcher and a tormentor.  On the website where he explains the experiment, he writes from the perspective of a participant more than the psychologist.  The Stanford Experiment got out of hand because Zimbardo stopped acting like the person in charge and became a prison guard.

This controversial experiment may have been inspired by a similar one that came eight years before.  The study aimed to investigate one of the greatest humanitarian crises in the world: the Holocaust.  After the Holocaust and World War II was over, the Nuremberg Trials were held to try former Nazi officials.  A common excuse given by war criminals on stand was that they were just following orders given to them by superiors.  One psychologist in particular, Stanley Milgram, became fascinated with this concept.  He wondered how long humans would follow orders if they knew it was harming others.  This fascination prompted the Milgram Experiment.

Milgram advertised his study in the newspaper and found 40 volunteers.  When they came in for the study, they were told that its purpose was to investigate the effects of punishment on learning ability.  Milgram then divided participants into two roles: learners and teachers.  They drew straws to see who would take on which role, but the draw was rigged so that the learner was a person already informed about the true nature of Milgram’s study.  After watching the learner being strapped to a chair and hooked up to electrodes, the teacher and an experimenter (also informed about the experiment) would both go to a separate room that contained a desk for the experimenter and a shock generator for the teacher.  The fake generator went from 0 to 450 volts, with volts on the higher end marked, “Danger: Severe Shock.”  Teachers were told that the generator would administer shocks to the learner, but this was not the case.  Instead of actually shocking anyone, Milgram pre-recorded audio tapes of fake shockings to play for the teacher.  When the study began, the experimenter told the teacher to teach word pairs to the subject and administer shocks when they made a mistake, going 15 volts higher with each mistake made.  As the volts increased, the voice in the audio tape got more anxious.  Here is the transcription:

  • 75 volts: “Ugh!!!”
  • 90 volts: “Ugh!!!”
  • 105 volts: “Ugh!!!” (Louder)
  • 120 volts: “Ugh!!! Hey, this really hurts.”
  • 135 volts: “Ugh!!!”
  • 150 volts: “Ugh!!! Experimenter! That’s all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me now. Get me out of here, please. My heart’s starting to bother me. I refuse to go on. Let me out.”
  • 165 volts: (Shouting) “Ugh!!! Let me out!”
  • 180 volts: (Shouting) “Ugh!!! I can’t stand the pain. Let me out of here!”
  • 195 volts: “Ugh!!! Let me out of here. Let me out of here. My heart’s bothering me. Let me out of here! You have no right to keep me here! Let me out! Let me out of here! Let me out! Let me out of here! My heart’s bothering me. Let me out! Let me out!”
  • 210 volts: “Ugh!! Experimenter! Get me out of here. I’ve had enough. I won’t be in the experiment any more.”
  • 225 volts: “Ugh!!!”
  • 240 volts: “Ugh!!!”
  • 255 volts: “Ugh!!! Get me out of here.”
  • 270 volts (Screaming) “Let me out of here. Let me out of here. Let me out of here. Let me out. Do you hear? Let me out of here.”
  • 285 volts: (Screaming)
  • 300 volts: (Screaming) “I absolutely refuse to answer any more. Get me out of here. You can’t hold me here. Get me out. Get me out of here.”
  • 315 volts: (Intense scream) “I told you I refuse to answer. I’m no longer part of this experiment.”
  • 330 volts: (Intense and prolonged screaming) “Let me out of here. Let me out of here. My heart’s bothering me. Let me out, I tell you. (Hysterically) Let me out of here. Let me out of here. You have no right to hold me here. Let me out! Let me out! Let me out! Let me out of here! Let me out. Let me out.”
  • 345-435 volts: (Silence)
  • 450 volts: (Silence)
  • 450 volts: (Silence)
  • 450 volts: (Silence)

Milgram found that every participant reached 300 volts, and 65% continued all the way to 450.  He concluded that people will follow orders given by authority figures—even if it meant killing someone.

Milgram’s study is widely regarded as a breakthrough in the study of human obedience.  Supporters argue that he had to push people to their limits to see how far they would take the experiment.  They’re probably right; it’s likely that Milgram never would’ve achieved the same results had he played the study a little safer.  But what Milgram told the participants the study was for and what the study was actually for were two completely different things.  Participants left the study wondering if they’d killed the person on the other side of the wall.  Some actually cried when the true purpose of the experiment was revealed, and they were shown the “learner,” happy and healthy.

But both the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram Experiment seem like child’s play compared to the next study.

In the first episode of Radiolab’s eighth season, a study is introduced.  Conducted by Henry Murray in Harvard University between 1959 and 1962, the study aimed to investigate the ways people reacted under stress.  Murray gathered a group of 21 students and asked them to write a personal essay.  This essay was to include their hopes, dreams, aspirations, and philosophy on life.  The participants wrote the extremely personal essays then returned to Murray who told them they would use it to debate philosophies and other undergraduate students.  However, this is far from the truth of what occurred in Murray’s study.

After the students handed in their essays, they were taken individually into an interrogation room with a one-way mirror.  On the other side of the wall, Murray and his team set up a camera to record.  After the students were hooked up to stress monitors, a stranger entered the room and began to attack their essays.  Murray had, in fact, trained a law student to make the participants as angry as he possibly could, tearing into the essays and ripping the students apart.  They were mocked, humiliated, and shamed.  Then, after this horrible session was over, they returned to Murray to watch the video he’d taken of them being ridiculed.

One student responded particularly poorly to the experiment.  The boy—whose code name for the experiment was “Lawful”—was already fairly vulnerable.  He’d enrolled in Harvard University at the age of 16 with virtually no money and no family.  Lawful’s experience with the study was far worse than any other student.  Because of the loneliness he conveyed in his essay, he was an easy target for the trained law student.  As he was verbally abused, his stress monitor displayed the highest reaction of any participant.

Lawful never forgot the experience.  He was angry at Harvard for what they’d done to him, and he had recurring nightmares about Murray for years.  What happened to Lawful?

Well, have you heard of Ted Kaczynski?

No?  Does the title, “the Unabomber” ring a bell?  The infamous terrorist who mailed bombs that killed three people and injured 23 more?

Yep.  Lawful’s real name was Ted Kaczynski.  While he was always a reclusive and strange boy, many claim that he would’ve been only that for his whole life if he hadn’t participated in Murray’s scarring study.  The experiment was sadistic, torturous, and traumatizing.  Like the other two studies, participants were not told the true purpose of the experiments.  They made the understandable mistake of trusting in authorities, and the authorities tricked them in the name of psychology.

It’s true that the only reason such conclusions about human nature were drawn was researchers did not tell the whole truth.  Nevertheless, those participants deserved to know.  While controversial studies do not always have such traumatizing effects on participants, we cannot afford to take that chance.  No matter what information researchers want to know, it cannot supersede a person’s right to be informed.  In the three aforementioned studies, participants were used like guinea pigs as researchers published their fascinating results without any care for the emotional distress they received during the experiment.

Luckily, there are laws in place today which prevent researchers from concealing the purpose of their studies.  However, many people still revere experiments like the three in this article because they revealed undiscovered aspects of human nature.  But at what cost did they do so?  At what point can psychologists justify science over humanity?  It’s time for society to stop looking at experiments like Zimbardo’s or Milgram’s or Murray’s as ground-breaking studies that did more good than bad.  In these studies, people were lied to.  They were mistreated.  They were tricked, cheated, and abused.  The researchers in charge intended to view the effects of torture on others, but in administering studies that left participants in emotional and psychological suffering, they themselves became the tormentors.


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