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How can you modify Milgram's experiment so that it is ethical and has no potential to harm the participant's mental, emotional, and social state?  

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Given the measures used by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram to ensure control over the experiment that bears his name, it is uncertain whether modifications were possible to prevent actual physical or psychological harm to participants. As with the later and more well-known Stanford Prison Experiment, the entire point of the exercise is lost if the extent of precautionary measures is such that no risk to participants exists. It is incumbent upon researchers to minimize or prevent harm to test subjects, and certainly those subjects should be thoroughly briefed beforehand on any identifiable risks associated with their participation, but volunteers who understand those risks enter the activity of their own accord.

Milgram’s objective was to determine the extent to which individuals would deliberately cause harm to others solely because they were ordered to do so by authoritative figures. Milgram was inspired at least in part by the experiences of the Nuremburg Trials of World War II German figures accused of war crimes, and by the subsequent trial of one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, who infamously defended his heinous actions during the war by stating that he had been merely following orders. The Milgram Experiment, therefore, was intended to simulate, in a controlled setting, the willingness of people to subject others to physical pain on the orders of “teachers,” the volunteers who would penalize “test subjects” who were knowing participants in the experiment. The results of the exercise were disturbing not only for the demonstrated willingness of many volunteers to follow inhumane orders but also for the actual psychological toll exacted upon some of those volunteers who emotionally resisted orders to shock “test subjects.”

It was because of the psychological effects of Milgram’s experiment on some of his volunteers that the question arises as to whether modifications could have been made to ensure that no psychological harm came to any of those volunteers. For experiments like that conducted by Professor Milgram to prove scientifically viable, there must be a high degree of realism. Could Milgram have attained the data or results he needed with a reduced level of realism? Possibly. Given the nature of the exercise, however, it is unlikely those results would have been conclusive, even considering the extremely narrow sample of humanity subjected to the experiment (i.e., male only and all from a proscribed geographic sector). Milgram’s real-life model, after all, was the most horrific period in human history, the deliberate extermination of Europe’s Jewish population by Germany and its allies. Given the scale of human suffering that episode entailed, compelling test subjects to administer electric shocks to a total stranger under instructions/orders of an authoritative figure in a laboratory setting is about as limited as one can suppose. Modifications to Milgram’s experiment designed to lessen adverse effects on volunteers could be introduced, such as not attempting to compel volunteers to increase voltage to dangerous levels, but such limitations would, again, have muted the experiment’s effects given the purpose of the experiment.

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Despite its horrific (and often misunderstood) outcome, the Milgram experiment really was not that unethical to begin with. I think many people want to think that it was more unethical than it was, simply so that they can place some emotional distance between them and the result. But in fact, Milgram's only unethical actions (by current standards---at the time standards were much looser) were in not getting sufficiently informed consent, overly pressuring experimental participants, and not providing sufficient debriefing. The core structure of the experiment was sound, and the deception itself was not ethically problematic.

It would be quite easy to re-do the experiment in an ethical fashion by fixing these problems.

Actually, this has more or less already been done.

An experiment led by Molly Crockett with Oxford and University College London conducted an experiment very similar to Milgram's, but with much more rigorous informed consent, much weaker pressure on the participants, and much better debriefing. Crockett has also called it the "honest Milgram experiment", because it involves no deception. The participants knew that they were delivering shocks to actual people, and they were. These shocks were much milder and carried very little health risk, but were enough to be painful. Of course, it's impossible to do anything that has zero risk, but the standard used by Institutional Review Boards (IRB) is that it must pose no more risk than daily life, which this study satisfies. (After all, you could be hit by a car on the way to the lab; but that's not an ethical flaw in the experiment.)

What Crockett's team was actually looking for was whether people would really behave according to their own self-interest as standard neoclassical economics predicts. Participants had a series of choices to make, in which they would be paid money either to shock other people or to receive shocks themselves.

The neoclassical prediction is that people would shock others in essentially unlimited amounts for any amount of money, while they would only accept small shocks to themselves for relatively large amounts of money.

What Crockett found was the exact opposite of the neoclassical prediction: People were much more willing to accept shocks themselves than they were to shock other people. Not only were people not selfish, they were highly altruistic---in Crockett's terminology hyperaltruistic, meaning that they seemed to value other people more than they valued themselves.

A lot of subsequent work has been involved in figuring out why this would be true, or what exactly is going on there, because clearly people are not actually hyperaltruistic in general---or we'd all sell all of our possessions and donate the money to UNICEF. A number of new hypotheses have emerged about how human beings make moral value judgments, and this is now an exciting field of research (that I hope to be directly involved in soon, once I start my PhD this fall).

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