Introduction/Ethical Overview

Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Study

In this study participants were recruited for what they believed to be a study on learning mechanisms. At the start of the session, each participant was told that they would be the “teacher” and were to be paired with another volunteer who would be the “student.” The “teacher” was to punish the “student” with electric shock of increasing voltage for each wrong answer. As the trial progressed, the “student” would show increased pain and begin demanding to stop. Eventually, the “student” would stop responding all together, an event which was treated as a wrong answer requiring punishment. In truth, the “student” was a confederate of the investigator. No electric shocks were actually delivered. The true participants, however, were unaware of this ruse and would invariably ask to stop the experiment in response to the despair of the “student.” The participants were encouraged by the investigator to continue by being told that this was a very important scientific study. Most participants did continue, even to the level of administering voltages labeled as lethal.

This study is notable for the high degree of deception involved as well as for the undue influence of the investigator in encouraging the participants to continue. The latter in fact was the phenomenon under study ­how far individuals would go when asked by a figure of authority. Lastly, the severe psychological distress experience by the participants in this study highlighted the importance of considering non-physical harm to participants.

Humphrey’s Tea Room Trade Study

Lack of informed consent was also at issue in a sociological study of homosexual culture in the late 1960’s. The Tea Room Trade studies involved participant observation of homosexual encounters in public bathrooms. The participants were not informed of the investigator’s identity as a sociologist. Instead, the investigator indicated a willingness to facilitate the encounters by offering to serve as a “watch queen.” Having gained the participants’ confidence under false circumstances, the investigator proceeded to collect information on their lifestyles. He did this by changing his appearance and going to their home pretending to be collecting health-related information on middle class persons. The information collected implicated the participants in illegal and/or socially unacceptable activities, thus posing a significant risk of criminal, social and financial harm to the participants for research that they were not even aware that they were involved in.