This is fascinating news: the classic “Obedience to Authority” experiments of Stanley Milgram, one of the most famous and influential pieces of research in the annals of psychology, have more or less been duplicated.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Milgram experiments, here’s a summary. The gist of it was Milgram’s shocking (literally) finding that ordinary people in this country could be persuaded to inflict what they thought were painful electric jolts to “subjects” (actually, actors) in what was billed as a learning experiment, if an authoritative “researcher” (also an actor) told them it was okay.
This was true for most subjects even if the “victim” was screaming in pain and complained of a weak heart. It was also true if the “doctor” didn’t have a white coat, and was in a lab in a seedier part of town. No actual shocks were administered, but I recall that, in follow-up interviews, most of the subjects thought the shocks were real.
Milgram varied the details of the experiment over and over (read his book if you have time; it’s a masterpiece of its genre), but the results always pointed to the troubling fact that the majority of people failed to “question authority” (see this, this, this, and this for my four-part series on questioning authority).
I had always thought Milgram’s experiments, which were performed in the 1960s, could not be reproduced today because the ethics of psychology research have changed so much in the interim, partly as a result of the publicity about experiments such as his. The current researchers have gotten around that problem by stopping the experiment at an earlier level of “pain,” when the subjects think they are administering a shock amounting to 150 volts, the level at which the “subject” is “crying out” in pain but has not reached the histrionic levels of the earlier experiments. Even then, fewer people today went as far as 150 volts as compared to the original experiments. But the change, although in a good direction, was not statistically significant.
One difference that might be significant, however, is that the current researchers limited their experiment to people unfamiliar with the earlier one. I have no idea what percentage of the population that represents, but it definitely would be a selected group, which could easily have affected the findings.
Like almost everyone who hears of Milgram’s work, I have always assumed I would be among those people who refused to go on as soon as the “subject” cried out in pain. Since everyone feels that way, however, and we know that most people did not desist from administering the “shocks,” my assumptions about myself are suspect, as well. But I do know from my own life that in other, admittedly less dramatic settings, I have refused many times to go along with instructions or orders that I find ethically questionable. So perhaps I’m correct—after all, somebody’s got to be in that percentage of people who refused, right? Why not me?