Deakin Communicating Science 2016

EES 200/101

Psychology: Purpose, Issues and Future (Part 2) The Ethical Tripwire


The Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Credit:



We’ve discussed psychology’s purpose, now lets look at the issues and challenges it faces in modern times. As we discussed earlier, psychology has allowed us to move away from inhumane treatment such as lobotomies and cages. But those very same human rights advances pose issues for the future of psychological research.

Unfortunately for psychology some of it’s biggest and best know advances were done under highly questionable conditions in regards to the welfare of the participants. Take one of pop-culture’s favourite experiments: Stanley Milgram’s Experiment of Obedience which delved in post-WWII theories on how capable the ordinary person is of destructive actions, including murder, if told to do so (Lewis, T. 2014). In Milgram’s finding he may have called the guilt of former Schutzstaffle soldiers into question, i.e. how aware were those soldiers that they were committing genocide when they led Jews in the gas chamber. However, in psychology classroom, Milgram is focused on primarily for his own abuse of human rights.


Stanley Milgram with his infamous shock machine used in his experiment. Credit:


What about another well know experiment? Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. This experiment was designed by Alfred Zimbardo, who is regarded as one of the greatest psychologists of all time, to examine human behaviour after being assigned certain roles, specifically, prisoners and guards (Bottoms 2014, p162-175). The results of the experiment showed that guards quickly took on a cruel, dominant and abusive role…despite the prisoners being fake, and innocent. One would originally assume that guards may be single out certain prisoners in their charge due to their crimes; child abuse, sexual assault, murder, etc. But Zimbardo’s experiment showed that people in a position of authority could abuse that power, simply as a condition of having that power and, that they believe they should indulge in that; meaning they feel that their role is not supervise prisoners, but to antagonise them too. This meant that prison guards throughout the United States could be treating the tax cheat with same level of contempt and the serial rapist. But when the feature film came out on Zimbardo’s experiment what was the film selling point? Zimbardo’s human rights abuse. Ignoring the fact that it was experiments like this that set the precedent to put an end to other human rights abuses in prisons, such as Abu Ghraib. Ironic, isn’t it?


Would either of these ground breaking experiments be performed today? Or others such as the Little Albert experiment on fear by John Watson (Digdon, Powell and Harris, 2014, p312-324), or Harry Harlow’s experiments of attachment in monkeys (Vicedo, M 2009)? No, and they would likely never get past an ethics board and if they did the level of ethical constraint the experimenter will face will make result difficult to yield, and the ones that are yielded may be even more difficult to use. Am I defending human or animal right abuse for the purpose of science? Certainly not. The human rights of an individual are far more important in a civilized society than any psychological research. But, what I am saying is that we are going to have to face the reality that much of the psychological knowledge we possess today, comes from decades of ethically questionable research. This poses a serious speed hump for modern psychologists, in that they face a much more difficult challenge than Harlow, or Watson, or Milgram, or Zimbardo, in that any and all research they do, must pass the ethics test.


Psychology Board of Australia’s Logo. Credit: PBA



Bottoms, S. 2014, “Timeless Cruelty: Performing the Stanford Prison Experiment”, Performance Research, vol. 19, no. 3, p162-175

Digdon, N., Powell, R. and Harris, B. 2014, “Little Albert’s Alleged Neurological Impairment”, History of Psychology, vol. 17, p312-324

Lewis, T. 2014, Salem Press Encyclopaedia of Health, Salem Press, Ipswich, USA

Vicedo, M. “Mothers, Machines, and Morals: Harry Harlow’s Work on Primate Love form Lab to Legend”, Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences, vol. 45, no. 3, p193-218





About ljborley

I'm a student at Deakin University studying a double Bachelor of Science and Teaching. I'm passionate about science and education philosophy.

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This entry was posted on April 27, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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