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



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The learner was placed in what appeared to be an electric chair, that is, wire leads ran from a control panel to the chair and were attached to the learner’s wrists. The control panel had switches labeled from 15 volts to 450 volts.

For the experiment, the teacher asked the learner a question (word-pair matching) and when the wrong answer was given, the investigator would instruct the teacher to administer ‘punishment’ to the learner in the form of electric shocks in an escalating amount. The learner would display evidence of receiving pain from the shocks. After one-third of the shock levels had been given, the learner demanded to stop. At this point, the teacher would usually ask the investigator to stop, but the investigator insisted that the procedure continue. After two thirds of the shocks had been administered, the learner fell silent and non-responsive (a non-response was treated as a wrong answer and punished). When they continued to seek permission to stop, the highly conflicted teachers were told that the experiment was important to complete for the advancement of science. Fully 60% of teachers were persuaded into administering shocks up to and including the highest level.



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