Violent Behavior Born or Raised

Ulla Sarja's image for:
"Violent Behavior Born or Raised"
Image by: 

How we see a human being is the main thing when deciding how we act in different situations. If you see a human being as a fundamentally egoistic and evil, is it going to influence your attitudes and decisions? Human beings however use to have empathy and that is why we can understand when another person is suffering.
But is there a common principle to tell what is right and what is wrong?
How long can you go when studying human being in research? Where is the limit or is there any limit?
In this essay I am going to discuss some studies done in psychological research and the ethical aspect of these studies. I a first going to present Stanford Prison Experiment and Miltons experiment and then discuss these from the ethical point of wiew.

Stanford Prison Experiment
Stanford Prison Experiment was as study led by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University 1971.
Tventy four students participated playing roles of guards and prisoners. The students playing prisoners were paid 15 dollars a day as incentive for participating the study.
The participants were carefully chosen after tests and interviews. Just the most stabile persons with no involvment to anti-social behavior were chosen. There were 24 participants and it was randomly decided who was going to play a role as a prisoner or a guard.
The amazing thing was that both the prisoners and the guards adapted their roles very soon and the whole situation became dangerous because most of the guards soon exhibited sadistic tendencies and the prisoners began to get mental problems. The experiment was terminated by Zimbardo after six days after realizing the experiment was unethical (Zimbardo, 2008).

The Milgram Experiment
The Milgram experiment was a series of socialpsychology experiments led by Stanley Milgram 1960s. In this study one of the participants was a teacher and the other one was a learner. In fact the learner was trained to act for the role but this was something the teacher didnt know. Initially the teacher was given a 45 volt electric shock to demonstrate how the learner is going to feel. The teacher was told by the experiment leader to give an electric shock every time the learner gave a wrong answer to a question asked by the teacher. The voltal level was increased after every wrong answer. In reality there were no chocks.
When the learner began to show pain reactions some participant of the study began to ask if they really should continue to give electric shocks. They were told to continue and they were assured they would not be held responsible. The persons who still wanted to stop after the experiment leader had told them to go on several times, were allowed to stop. The others continued. Some of teh participant became nervous and some became laugh while they still continued.
The study was stopped after the teacher had given the maximum 450 volt shock, i.e. killed the other person, three times in succession (Milgram, 2004).

What is unethical in these studies?
Ethics is the study of value judgements and you can question if you can tell which moral judgements are correct (Moore & Bruder, 1995). However, by using our empathy most of us have a common way to think about what is ethical and what is unethical.

The Standford Prison Experiment (Zimbardo, 2008) cleary showed how soon persons given som roles begin to see the role as a reality. The guards, hidden behind their mirrored sunglasses made prisoners ask permission to do anything, even to go to toilet. They forced prisoners to do push-ups, they didnt let the prisoners sleep and they were behaving like sadistic psychopaths.
The prisoners became depressed and two of them broke down after a couple of days. The prisoners hated the guards but felt powerless against them (Passer & Smith, 2007).
When Zimbardo halted the study after six days he was totally disbelieving what was going on in the prison. Normal persons turned to inhumanity in front of his eyes. How could the guards become so cruel and how could the prisners totally give up and become apathic?
After the experiment was over Zimbardo and his team held several sessions with the participants to help them through the powerfull emotional reactions caused by the study (Passer & Smith, 2007). One guard recalled, " I was surprised at myself. I made them ...clean out the toilets with their bare hands. I practically considered the prisoners cattle..." (Zimbardo et al in Passer & Smith, 2007, p. 614).
In this study as the guards slipped in their roles and began mistreating the prisoners, they began to view the prisoners as animals (Passer & Smith, 2007).
The ethical issue raising here is: what a human being is able to do when the circumstanses are different than the daily life. If this happens in an experimental environment it maybe can happen in real life. So how far can you go in experimental environment to still make the study ethical?

Milgram experiment showed us that you actually may be able to make another person suffer if a leader tells you to do it. At least this happens in experimental environment.
According to Myers (1994) cruel acts corrode the conscienses of those who perform them. Harming an innocent victim by uttering hurtfull comments or delivering electric shocks typically leads aggressors to disparage their victims thus helping them justify their behavior.
The leader actually used lies and manipulation in this experiment to make the person continue. Is that right or wrong?

Both these studies clearly showed the dark side of the human nature. In the Stanford prison experiment the guards very soon became cruel and treated the prisoners like animals. The prisoners accepted their role as being worth nothing.
The Stanford university study shows that something makes an ordinary person to do things he probably never would do alone and in the real life. And the people playing prisoners became depressed and apathic in few days.

If we look at Milgrams experiment it seems like 65 percent of people are easily influenced by a leader with a great authority. And they seem to be able to even kill another person if te leader gives an order and tells that the individual has no responsibility for his actions.
The participants at the Milgram experiment were actually willing to kill a person with electric shocks if another person with authority was responsible (Milgram, 2004).
The same etchical issue is raisin even here: what can a human being do if he knows he is not responsible about his actions. Can we explain how a person is losing his own values in a short time and can it happen in real life? And can we justify the experiment leaders behavior in this study?

How can we explain things happened in these experiments?
According to Festingers theory of cognitive dissonance (Passer & Smith, 2007) people strive for consistency in their cognitions. Behavior that is inconsistent with ones attitudes is called counterattitudinal behavior and it produces dissonance only if we perceive that our actions were freely choosen rather than coerced (Passer & Smith, 2007). Dissonance does not always lead to attitude change. You can reduce dissonance by finding external justifications or making other excuses (Cooper et al in Passer & Smith, 2007). Like the statement by one of the guards in Stanford prison study regarding his his treatment of the prisoners: "I was surprised at my self" (Passer and Smith, 2007, p. 620). If the guard thought of himself as a kind person there was a dissonance. When he began to see the prisoners as cattle the dissonance was reduced.
According to Passer and Smith (2007) norms and roles can influence behavior so strongly that they compel a person to act uncharactestically. That was what happened in the Stanford prison study; well-adjusted students seemed to overide their values and turn to dehumanize the prisoners.
Norms can influence behavior only if people conform to them. Often people conform to a majority because they beleive that their opinion "must be right" (Passer & Smith, 2007).
According this statement, in the Stanford prison study, even those individuals who actually didnt want to be cruel, turned to it because of the majority opinion. They simply thought it was right. According to Passer & Smith (2007) people conform to obtain the rewards that come from being acceptedby other people while at the same time avoiding their rejection.
So what would have happened if Zimbardo didnt have halted ths study? How long would the guads gone in humiliating the prisoners? And how long time would the prisoners accepted the guards behavior without saying stop?
It seems that even the prisoners were conforming to the situation. They seem to have felt it is right to be humiliated even if some of them broke down. Probably even the break downs were viewed as natural; they were prisoners and in prison you may break down.
You can make a conclusion that this maybe could happen even in the real life.
How to see this study from the ethical point of view?
Many researcher have later written that the Zimbardo Experiment were frightening in their implications about the danger which lurks in the darker side of human nature (Passer & Smith, 2007).

Unscientific and ethically dodgy as this infamous study was, it's a valuable experiment because every psychology student studies it at some length fairly early on. So maybe lessons were learned from it.

The Milgram study was another experiment that can be viewed as unethical. Milgram was mainly interested in social influence and desired to understand the horrors of the Holocaust (Passer & Smith, 2007).
In this study the participants wrestled with a dilemma; should they continue to hurt this innocent person, who was already screaming, as the experimenter commanded or should they stop the learners pain by disobeying. However 65 percent of the 40 participants obeyed all the way out (Passer & Smith, 2007).
How can we explain this?
The participants viewed the experimenter as an expert and an authority figure. The particpants were even told they had no responsibility. However researchers har een depating why obedience was so high and its ethics were harsly criticized (Blass, 2002; Miller 2004 in Passer & Smith, 2007).
Milgram and other researcers found out that obedience was greatest when the learner was out of sight (Passer & Smith, 2007). The conclusion could be that if you dont know the person, then you are able to cause pain and suffering.
Also, obedience was highest when the authority figure was close by and perceived as legitimate (Passer & Smith, 2007).
So you could make a conclusion even about that: if an person perceived having high authority gives you an order you are likely to obay.
What lessons can we draw from this experiment? Are human beings fundamentally evil?
Researchers who criticized the study told that the participants were deceived, were exposed to in Passer & Smith, 2007). Milgram told that the study was socially significant and that the participants were carefully debriefed afterward and there was even psychitric follow-ups that suggested no long-term effects (Passer & Smith, 2007).
However you can question the ethics of this study as well as the Stanford prison experiment.
Is it right to make human beings do things like that just to get reseach results?

What is right is what you believe is right. Right and wrong are relative to individuals beliefs and standards (Moore & Bruder, 1995).
The question is how you can know what e.g. Zimbardo or Milgram viewed as right and what the paritcipating students viewed as right. If a student with different values and a very strong moral is participating a study like these, what is going to happen to his self-image?
Even if the students got debfiefing we cant know how they really felt.

Before the Stanford prison experiment began the male volonteers completed a background questionaire and interviewed by one of the two experimenters. The 24 subjects who were judged to be most mentally and physically stabile and least involved in anti-social behaviors were selected to participate the study .On a random basis, half the subjects were assigned the role of guard, half were assigned to the role of prisoner (Passer & Smith, 2007).

But what results did the experiment leaders really get? That people can become cruel in a few days if the circumstances are the right? It maybe is not that simple; the situation however was an experimental situation.

Maybe the difference between behavior and character matters very much in this context. It is one thing to behave according to sadistic rules. And another thing to want to be and to enjoy being cruel to people. The failure to make this distinction deprives the Stanford prison experiment of much of its value, as it also marred Milgram's experiment.
Can we be sure that the guards in Stanfort prison study really enjoyed their roles? If not, then it was just to do things they had been told to do. So what was the real result of the study?
Actually the same as in the Milgrams experiment; we do as we are told to do.
The difference between these two studies was that in Milgrams experiment the participant believed the situation was an autentic situation. However they still continued giving electric shocks.
These studies have been critizised and discussed by several researchers. And they still are. The studies are now seen as unethical and even the results have been critizised to not to be reliable.
Probably the main thing we have learned here is not to use human beings in studies like this.
That maybe was the main value of these experiments, now viewed as unethical.


Milgram, S. (2004). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental view. UK: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Moore, B. N. (1995). Philosophy: The Power or Ideas. California: Mayfield Publishing Company.
Myers, D. G. (1994). Exploring Social Psychology. New York: McCraw-Hill Inc.
Passer, M. W. (2007). Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior. New York:
The McCraw-Hill Companies inc.
Zimbardo, P. G. (2008). The Lucifer Effect: Undestanding How Good People Turn Evil.
UK: Random House Trade.

More about this author: Ulla Sarja

From Around the Web