Fairness and Ethics in Comp II

As I enter a standard classroom for what could count as the first time, it’s been intriguing to both evaluate where my education has been a little shoddy, and note what I’m more knowledgable about than many of my classmates. It’s also really interesting to compare my worldview on things where I wouldn’t have thought I was an outlier.

In my Composition II class we read up on several social psychology experiments last week, including reading an excerpt from Asch’s “Perils of Obedience” and the Stanford Prison experiment.

Asch did the experiment where actors were hired to simulate being electrically shocked while the subjects thought they were participating in a study on the effects of punishment on learning. They and the person being shocked were supposedly a pair of participants. Really, the study was to see whether they would go along with electrocuting people who seemed to be suffering when so directed.

The results were completely opposite of what people in the field expected: they thought most would resist. Most, instead, were obedient, even if uncomfortable.

Last week one of our prompts to post on was “were these experiments ethical?”

I turned out to be perhaps the only one who felt Asch’s experiment was ethical. This puzzled me–the findings were that people acted unethically, but why would this seemingly very important study strike people the same way as the much more controversial Stanford Prison Experiment?

As I read the other posts, it slowly emerged: it was because the participants were tricked about what the experiment was.

Not everyone stated the same reason (one was knowledgeable enough to cite rules about ethics standards in psychology experiments, though I believe they significantly misread the passage they considered to indicate a breach) but a lot of them said: The participants were lied to, so the study is unethical.

From my point of view, you sign up to be part of a psychology experiment, how could you not expect to maybe not know the extent of the study?

I think it comes down to this: they’re equating “fair” with “ethical”. We’re kind of obsessed with things being fair in American society, though basically nowhere in life are things actually fair.

Is it unethical to lie? Probably. But I’m curious how you’d design a study to test actual ethical behavior in an unbiased setting for actual data while also revealing the point of the test.

The finding are troubling. The test was unfair. Therefore it’s easier to say it was unethical, and try to forget it.

Except our next assignment is to use one of the experiments as a point of comparison with a specific violation of human rights. I’m doing mine on Asch’s obedience study and the Holocaust, because both of those things speak to issues on my mind today.

I wish my classmates weren’t missing this. I hope they’re not. But I’m afraid they are.

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