Historical perspectives and their significant impact on the development of ethical standards governing research using human participants

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The ‘Milgram Study’ (1963)

Stanley Milgram was a researcher in social psychology at Yale University who, after reading accounts of the Nazi Holocaust, became interested in obedience and humans’ response to authority. The German citizenry’s seeming acceptance of and complacency in regard to the atrocities presented an interesting question. In 1963, he published the results of a study on obedience that raised a firestorm of criticism with implications even today.

The Experiment- Adult participants were recruited by means of a newspaper advertisement asking for volunteers for a study of ‘memory and learning.’ Participants were paid a modest amount for the one hour experiment. Study participants were part of a triad that consisted of themselves, the investigator and a third person. The investigator explained that the experiment was to study learning and memory, specifically what role punishment played. The participant was to play the role of ‘teacher’ while the third person was to be the ‘learner.’ The investigator would monitor the process and record the data.

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