Here is a short film describing the social and scientific context, as well as the content, of Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments. There is some detailed original footage from of the actual experiments, and some great commentary from Milgram himself.

In undergraduate textbooks, descriptions of the Milgram experiments are often inaccurate or under-detailed, leading to a widespread belief that these experiments produced straightforward findings that teach us stark lessons about human social behaviour. However, a closer scrutiny of the research reveals that the findings and implications of the work are far from clear. This may be yet another example of how people’s prior beliefs and value systems influence the way they interpret the findings of research.

Some questions might be worth considering. To what extent do these experiments actually facilitate valid conclusions, or to what extent has our wider culture appropriated these studies in order to (falsely) corroborate its own prior assumptions regarding the nature of human fallibility? Do you think these studies could be replicated in ways that conform with contemporary ethical standards? Finally, if it is concluded that the original studies were indeed unethical, do you think it is correct for scientists to use their findings to inform other research (or should the findings of unethical research be boycotted?) or for educators to teach their students about the experiments in any context other than discussions of morality in science? 

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About Brian Hughes

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