Ethical Guidelines in Psychology

In psychological studies there has to be some level of ethical awareness where participants are concerned, seeing to it that they will not come to any stress, harm, or deception in any major way. Today there are guidelines on what constitutes an ethical study, but they are mainly looked at in terms of cost-benefit analysis. In this essay we will be looking at two examples of ethically controversial studies, Stanley Milgram’s 1963 obedience study and Philip Zimbardo’s 1969 Stanford prison experiment, weighing up the costs and the benefits to see whether the end results were really justified.

A major critic of Milgram’s study was Dr. Diana Baumrind (1964), who argued that as well as deceiving the participants on two counts, they had also not given their true consent. The study could not have been done without deception, however a significant cost would be the negative psychological effect it could have had on the participants. Throughout the process they showed visible signs of stress and anxiety such as sweating, trembling and stuttering, whilst being pushed into to making stressful decisions (Brody et al, 2002, p.


Although learning through debriefing that it was all a set-up, the realisation of what they could have done is a thought that might have tormented them long after the study was over. Baumrind also argued that they experienced a loss of self esteem and dignity, as well as finding themselves unable to trust authority figures as a result (Brody et al, 2002, p. 128). However, the results of this study proved beneficial.

Inspired by the actions of the Nazi’s in 1930-40, it was a means of explaining why some people commit atrocities under instruction.

According to Milgram, “in conformity, there is no explicit requirement to act a certain way, whereas in obedience we are being ordered or instructed to do something” (Gross, 2010, p. 415). A positive outcome of the study could be the realisation of the fact that we could potentially all do the same, resulting in “people taking more responsibility for their own actions and not blindly obeying others” (Brody et al, 2002, p. 130).

With the participants experiencing no true long-term emotional disturbances despite critics’ concerns, 84% were in fact happy to have taken part and felt they learnt something important from the experience (Cardwell et al, 2004, p. 248). On that note, it could certainly be argued in this case that the benefits were indeed greater than the costs. Like Milgram’s study, the participants of Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment also faced quite a major level of stress and harm throughout the process.

According to Zimbardo, “volunteer prisoners suffered physical and psychological abuse hour after hour for days, while volunteer guards were being exposed to the new self-knowledge that they enjoyed being powderful and had abused this power to make other human beings suffer” (Gross et al, 2000, p. 137). He found that the participants easily conformed to their new roles, with the prisoners growing ever more submissive.

They were exposed to degrading and and humiliating treatment which grew so serious as to drive one participant to “uncontrollable bursts of screaming, crying and anger”, causing him to have to be released after only thirty-six hours. In the next few days, three more people also had to leave after showing these emotional distress signals which could potentially have left long-term psychological effects. The experiment, originally intended to last for two weeks, was ended after only six days (www. simplypsychology. org, 2008).

At the debriefing many of the participants were surprised at the way they had behaved, for example the guards being so cruel and the prisoners so submissive. A resulting benefit of the study could be that it has proved situational factors have a powerful effect on the way we behave, that it is not always down to our own personality. It has also given us an insight into why prisons are such terrible places to be, explaining that the power structure of an organization and conformity to roles as well as the situation itself could have a lot to do with the hostility that goes on.

However, Savin (1973) argued that these were not sufficient benefits to justify the “distress, mistreatment and degradation suffered by the participants” (Gross et al, 2000, p. 137), which in this case can be agreed that the end results did not outweigh the costs.

Reference List

1. Brody, R, Dwyer, D. (2002) Revise Psychology For AS Level, Sussex: Psychology Press Ltd. 1. Cardwell, M, Flanagan C. (2004), Psychology A2: The Complete Companion, UK: Nelson Thornes Ltd. 1. Gross, R. (2010), Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

1. Gross, R, Coolican, H, Russell, J, Clamp, A, Mcliveen, R. (2000), Psychology: A New Introduction, London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. 1. McLeod, S. A. (2008), Zimbardo – Stanford Prison Experiment, Available online at: http://www. simplypsychology. org/zimbardo. html [Accessed on 20 October 2012]. Bibliography 1. Gross, R. (2009), Themes, Issues and Debates in Psychology, London: Hodder Education Ltd. 1. Hayes, N. (2000), Foundations of Psychology, London: Cengage Learning Ltd. 1. Zimbardo, P (1999), Stanford Prison Experiment, Available online at:

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