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The Shocking Truth of the Notorious Milgram Obedience Experiments
By Guest Blogger | October 2, 2013 9:22 am
By Gina Perry
The original Milgram “shock box,” on display at the Ontario Science Centre. Image by Isabelle Adam via Flickr
It’s one of the most well-known psychology experiments in history – the 1961 tests in which social psychologist Stanley Milgram invited volunteers to take part in a study about memory and learning. Its actual aim, though, was to investigate obedience to authority – and Milgram reported that fully 65 percent of volunteers had repeatedly administered increasing electric shocks to a man they believed to be in severe pain.
In the decades since, the results have been held up as proof of the depths of ordinary people’s depravity in service to an authority figure. At the time, this had deep and resonant connections to the Holocaust and Nazi Germany – so resonant, in fact, that they might have led Milgram to dramatically misrepresent his hallmark findings.
Stanley Milgram framed his research from the get-go as both inspired by and an explanation of Nazi behavior. He mentioned the gas chambers in the opening paragraph of his first published article; he strengthened the link and made it more explicit twelve years later in his book, Obedience to Authority.
At the time Milgram’s research was first published, the trial of high profile Nazi Adolph Eichmann was still fresh in the public mind. Eichmann had been captured in Buenos Aires and smuggled out of the country to stand trial in Israel. The trial was the first of its kind to be televised.
Suddenly the Holocaust was in American living rooms. A procession of witnesses, most of them survivors, gave testimony while Eichmann, impassive and ordinary looking, looked on from inside a glass bullet proof box. Hannah Arendt, covering the trial, dwelled on his terrifying ordinariness, and famously coined the phrase the “banality of evil” to describe it.
Milgram stressed the connection between Nazi functionaries like Eichmann and the subjects in his lab. His findings appeared to demonstrate that ordinary people would inflict pain on someone else simply because someone in authority told them to.
In his 1974 book Milgram described how a person surrenders his will with that of an authority, entering an “agentic state.” For subordinates of Hitler in Germany and Stalin in Russia, this state was a “profound slumber” compared to the “light doze” of subjects in his lab, but the process was the same. Once a person merges with an authority who gives the orders, and enters the twilight zone of the agentic state, even though he might be doing inhumane things that are “alien to his nature” he feels “virtually guiltless.”
The trouble was that this zombie-like, slavish obedience that Milgram described wasn’t what he’d observed.
Truth in Numbers
The statistical story of the obedience experiments is not nearly as straightforward as you’d think. The 65% headline figure, of people who followed the experimenters’ orders and went to the maximum voltage on the shock machine, implies that there was a single experiment. In fact there were 24 different variations, or mini dramas, each with a different script, actors and experimental set up.
It’s surprising how often Milgram’s 24 different variations are wrongly conflated into this single statistic. The 65% result was made famous because it was the first variation that Milgram reported in his first journal article, yet few noted that it was an experiment that involved just 40 subjects.
By examining records of the experiment held at Yale, I found that in over half of the 24 variations, 60% of people disobeyed the instructions of the authority and refused to continue.
Then there are the methodological problems with the experiment. The highly controlled laboratory study that Milgram described actually involved a large degree of improvisation and variation not just between conditions but from one subject to another. You’d expect this to happen in the pilot phase of a study when the protocol is still being refined, but not once a study has begun.
Straying From Script
In listening to the original recordings of the experiments, it’s clear that Milgram’s experimenter John Williams deviated significantly from the script in his interactions with subjects. Williams – with Milgram’s approval – improvised in all manner of ways to exert pressure on subjects to keep administering shocks.
He left the lab to “check” on the learner, returning to reassure the teacher that the learner was OK. Instead of sticking to the standard four verbal commands described in accounts of the experimental protocol, Williams often abandoned the script and commanded some subjects 25 times and more to keep going. Teachers were blocked in their efforts to swap places with the learner or to check on him themselves.
The slavish obedience to authority we have come to associate with Milgram’s experiments comes to sound much more like bullying and coercion when you listen to these recordings.
Milgram went to great lengths with the stagecraft of his experiment, and was dismissive of subjects’ claims that they had seen through the hoax. Yet unpublished papers at Yale show that suspicion was alive and well among many of Milgram’s subjects (which is not surprising, given that Candid Camera was the most popular TV show in the United States at that time).
Subjects wrote to Milgram or called him afterwards to describe what had made them suspicious. Some commented on how the learner’s cries seemed to be coming from a speaker in the corner of the room, suggesting it was a tape recording. Others noticed the check given to the learner looked dog-eared and worn, an indication that it had been handed over many times before. The experimenter’s lack of concern for the learner and failure to respond to the learner’s complaints suggested there was nothing to worry about. Some subjects described how they had surreptitiously pressed switches of lower voltage but still the learner’s cries intensified.
But this skepticism of the subjects – whose belief in the experimental set up is pivotal to the validity of the experiment – has consistently been downplayed in discussions of the relevance and meaning of the results.
In the fifty years since publication of Milgram’s first journal article the obedience research continues to be cited as evidence of an enduring psychological truth: inside all of us is a Nazi concentration camp guard waiting to be called into service. Yet my archival research and examination of primary sources and that of other scholars contradicts this claim.
Milgram himself was privately aware of the methodological weakness of his research and struggled with many of the issues about the validity of experiments and their generalisability beyond the lab. Privately Milgram reflected that his work was more art than science, and described himself as a “hopeful poet.”
Poet or scientist, his determination to make a contribution to an understanding of one of the pressing issues of his generation led him to frame, shape and edit the story of his research for maximum impact. And while Milgram may have not measured obedience to authority in his lab his findings do offer us a powerful lesson: to question the authority of science and to be more critical of the stories we’ve been told.
Gina Perry is a psychologist and author of the book Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments, published in September 2013.
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Most of us have struggled to understand how seemingly ordinary people can sometimes do morally questionable things.
Two years ago, the photos of young American soldiers smiling while torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib horrified the world and raised the question of who was to blame.
Some of the soldiers defended themselves by claiming they were just doing what their superiors had instructed. But the smiling faces in the photos seemed to imply that they followed the orders without protest.
Are those soldiers inherently bad people? Or is it more complex than that? Do you have to be an evil person to do evil things?
In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram asked those same questions. That was the year Nazi Adolf Eichmann, on trial for his war crimes, denied responsibility for his actions by saying he was simply doing what his superiors told him to do.
Contemplating this rationalization, Milgram came up with a famous and controversial experiment to examine what happens when ordinary people are faced with morally questionable orders. What he learned shocked not only him but the entire world.
In the experiment, conducted at Yale University over a period of months in 1961, an authority figure -- "the experimenter" -- dressed in a white lab coat and instructed participants to administer what they believed were increasingly painful electric shocks to another person.
Although no one was actually receiving shocks, the participants heard a man screaming in pain and protest, eventually pleading to be released from the experiment. When the subjects questioned the experimenter about what was happening, they were told they must continue.
And continue they did: Two-thirds of Milgram's participants delivered shocks as they heard cries of pain, signs of heart trouble, and then finally -- and most frightening -- nothing at all.
The response to the experiment was enormous, and in 1975, strict guidelines about regarding psychological experiments on humans shelved any further potential replications. Since then, scientists have been stymied in efforts to replicate Milgram's study.
"Primetime" wanted to know if ordinary people today would still follow orders, even if they believed their actions were causing someone else pain. Would as many follow the seemingly dangerous and painful orders as in the original experiment? After contacting respected psychologist Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University in California, ABC News was able to replicate Milgram's study in a modified way.
After the American Psychological Association provided feedback on the testing protocol, this collaboration between "Primetime" and Santa Clara University marks the first time in decades that the famous study has been re-created.
Burger said, "People have often asked the question, 'Would we find these kinds of results today?' and some people try to dismiss the Milgram findings by saying, 'That's something that happened back in the '60s. People aren't like that anymore.'"
After placing an ad in the paper looking for participants for "a learning and memory study" and putting the respondents through psychological screening, "Primetime" found 70 people lined up for the experiment.
One of the first participants in the study was Troy, a 39-year-old electrician. Like all the participants, he was paid $50 and was told that the money would be his to keep, even if he quit the experiment early. Brian, in the role of the "experimenter," informed Troy that he was taking part in a learning and memory study and would be teaching word pairs to Ken, who was really a plant in the experiment.
If Ken got a word pair wrong, Troy was instructed to punish him with an electric shock from another room. The more word pairs Ken answered incorrectly, the more intense the shocks seemed to become. After getting a few wrong, at 75 volts, Troy heard what he thought was Ken shouting in pain -- but it was really an automatic audio cue that was set to go off at that voltage.
Each shock after that triggered a similar audio cue of pain. At 105 volts, Troy became uncomfortable. At 150 volts, he heard Ken plead, "That's all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart's starting to bother me. … Let me out!" Troy looked questioningly at the experimenter, who told him he must continue. Though he was clearly uncomfortable, Troy continued with another word pair before the experiment was stopped.
'I Was Doing What I Was Supposed to Do'
After the experiment, Troy said, "I was not comfortable. I cannot tell you why I listened to him and kept going. I should have said no."
When asked why he didn't stop administering the shocks, Troy explained, "I was doing what I was supposed to do, and I'm there to help conduct an experiment, so I'm just doing my part."
Troy's response is easy to understand, according to Burger. "The typical response is to turn toward the experimenter and if not to say something, at least give a look that says, 'What should I do?' And of course, when an expert tells them, 'Not a problem. This is nothing to worry about, continue.' The rational thing to do in that situation is to continue."
Milgram's original experiment tested just a handful of women, but "Primetime's" sampling was approximately half men and half women. Would the "gentler" sex be more reluctant to shock someone? And what about the people who refused to continue to shock the subject after hearing his demand to be released? What made them choose to stand up to authority?
In ABC News' version of the Milgram experiment, we tested 18 men, and found that 65 percent of them agreed to administer increasingly painful electric shocks when ordered by an authority figure.
22 women signed up for our experiment. Even though most people said that women would be less likely to inflict pain on the learner, a surprising 73 percent yielded to the orders of the experimenter.
Out of the 30 people we tested with an additional accomplice acting as a moral guide, 63 percent still inflicted electric shocks, even though the accomplice refused to go on.
Our subjects had an unusually high level of education. 22.9 percent had some college, 40 percent had bachelor's degrees and 20 percent had master's degrees.
The group was also ethnically diverse with 54.3 percent (white), 18.6 percent (Asian), 12.9 percent (Latin/Hispanic), 8.6 percent (Indian-Asian) and 4.3 percent (African -American).