In any discussion of ethics in psychology research, the names of Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram necessarily stand out. Their psychological experiments organized in the middle of the 20th century have revolutionized the professional and public understanding of human psyche. However, the methods employed by both researchers have raised dozens of ethics questions. Today, these two experiments are frequently presented as the examples of unethical psychology research. Nevertheless, their results continue to inform psychology research and practice. Fairly speaking, experimental psychology sometimes necessitates the use of coercive measures to put respondents on the margin and understand how it will impact their psychology. However, such measures can be justified only when the research subjects involved possess complete information about the study and when the study is of critical importance for the future of human wellbeing.
I find Zimbardo’s experiment to be extremely important for psychology research and practice. The whole purpose of the Stanford prison experiment was to test the boundaries of human cruelty and violence in conditions close to real imprisonment (Konnikova, 2015). The mere understanding that a person deemed as “normal” can cross the boundaries of cruelty and resort to tyranny when environmental conditions favor it provides valuable information about the human brain and can inform the development of relevant counseling and practice initiatives.
In a similar fashion, I consider Milgram’s experiment to be valuable in the study of human obedience. “In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram’s electric-shock studies showed that people will obey even the most abhorrent of orders” (Romm, 2015). The legacy of the Second World War and the atrocities that put millions of innocent people on the margin of ethics and survival warranted the study of human obedience, power, and transformations a person my undergo when placed in a manipulative and threatening environment.
Milgram and Zimbardo uncovered the nastiest dimensions of the human psyche. They have questioned the historical value of humanism and confirmed that human beings could be limitlessly cruel, abhorrent, and obedient when their lives and survival were at stake. However, the fact that Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s experiments targeted the most hidden features of human personality cannot diminish the value of their experimental results. The only question is whether the cruel means used in some psychology experiments justify their ends.
On the one hand, it is neither ethical nor humane to subject research respondents to any experimental procedures that may threaten their health and wellness. The current state of psychology science and ethics regulates the development and implementation of experimental procedures. For example, researchers must provide respondents with complete information about the purpose, procedures, and expected results of the study. On the other hand, the study of human psychology may necessitate the use of coercive measures to test respondents’ reactions and understand the complexity of their behaviors. Putting it simply, in some instances, the ends of psychology research may justify its means. This position was heavily criticized by Keehn (2000), who says that researchers cannot be objective in their judgment of what is significant and right in research. In contrast, Tai (2012) suggests that the use of unethical measures such as deception may be part of scientific experiments, without which they simply lose any sense.
Overall, humans are rational beings, and they are free to decide if they wish to participate in coercive psychology experiments. The use of coercion and other unethical procedures in psychology research can be appropriate only when respondents voluntarily agree to give up part of their freedom during the experiment and have complete information about its purpose and expected result. Other than that, researchers must be ready to justify the significance of their study and the contribution it will make to the practice of psychology, social change, and societal wellbeing. Without any immediate advantages brought by such studies, researchers should refrain from engaging their subjects in questionable experiments that may waste their health and lives.