In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a study on conformity to authority that is now infamous among social scientists. The study was relatively straightforward. Participants would be asked to administer shocks to another human who had performed poorly on a test. They were told that doing so could help the poor performer learn to do better. If a participant resisted administering the shocks, a member of the research team would insist that the participant continue for the good of the research. The shocks increased in intensity over the course of the study, reaching a level that could be lethal. In reality, there was no one receiving these shocks, but a paid actor would pretend to be hurt, leading the participant to believe that they had caused real harm to another real person. As a surprise to the researchers, over half of participants administered the final “lethal” shock. The findings from this study are commonly used to explain how genocides are perpetrated. Milgram and his team argued that ordinary people are willing to commit incomprehensible acts of violence so long as someone in authority assures them it is the right thing to do.
I first encountered the Milgram study as an undergrad in an introductory psychology class. By the time I graduated, I learned about the study in at least three other classes. Each time, the discussion was essentially the same. Our professor would insist that the findings from the study are important, but that the study is unethical due to the harm it caused participants. That harm was described as the emotional trauma of walking around with the knowledge that you could—and would—murder another person if someone asked you to do so. There are other ethical issues as well, including the deception used by the research team and how difficult it was for participants to withdraw their consent to be in the study, but they were also tied back to that main concern: the weight on the conscience of a participant who administered that “lethal” shock.
As a professor, I was prepared to have the same discussion with my students in Science, Power and Diversity as we discussed research ethics. But when it came time to do so, I had a different perspective on the Milgram study that comes from my own work with perpetrators of sexual violence—and how hard it is to research them.