December 29th, 2008

Milgram revisited

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?

29 Responses to “Milgram revisited”

  1. Gray Says:

    Of course the Compost had to take a gratuitous shot at the military: An instructor at West Point contacted Professor Burger to say that she was teaching her students about his findings. She had the right idea — and the right audience. The findings of these two experiments should be part of the basic training for soldiers, police officers, jailers and anyone else whose position gives them the power to inflict abuse on others.

    Really?

    How many of the New Haven subjects were military or LEOs?

    How about journalists which inflict ideological abuse on the military, conservatives and specifically Sarah Palin?

    Journalists are incurious, dimwitted pack animals who cannot resist a bandwagon: Note the ‘holier than thou’ tone of the article combined with following the orders of the liberal authorities in slandering the military?

    And comparing Abu Ghraib to The Holocaust?! F’in please….

  2. Tim P Says:

    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?

    Why not me too?
    Because (in my opinion anyway) nobody can ever know, until they are faced with the dilemma of making the horrible choice for real. We all want to believe that we will make the ethically correct choice. Even when under tremendous pressure to not do so.
    Unfortunately, not only this experiment, but history, shows that the majority will do what is necessary to alleviate their own suffering, even when increasing anothers if the cost to them is sufficiently high. That’s why those who don’t succumb are heros.
    I’m grateful for that fact, and hope and pray that I continue to live, in a country where the ‘authorities’ will never force me to make such horrible choices.

  3. eeyore Says:

    I remember a time where in a group, the “leader” belittled and harassed someone. I knew this was wrong but did not speak up. I am ashamed of my silence to this day. I hope I would never repeat that if in a similar situation.

  4. david foster Says:

    This is actually kind of scary. Given the general societal demand to “question authority” over the last 30 years or so, one would have expected some authority-questioning to be going on, even despite the subject-selection problem.

    OTOH…there have also been a lot of societal pressures for conformity, such as the “politically correct” speech codes on the majority of college campuses. It’s not unlikely that these have had some effect.

  5. david foster Says:

    For a discussion of a small group of people who *did* challenge authority, at great personal risk, see my post Oster, Stauffenberg, and VALKYRIE.

  6. Jouster Says:

    The modern university student is a conformist through and through. K-12 education is all about eradicating individualism and inculcating groupthink.

    If you want to find an individual, seek out someone who was homeschooled or self-educated. Virtually everyone else has had the indoctrination.

  7. Artfldgr Says:

    The true horror and reality of this in every day life is the behavior of civil servants with bizarre rules to follow. if they do the right thing, they get fired, if they comply with the inane rules, they are safe.

    its all around us, but we dont notice it.

    from the person who cleans things with a filthy rag since thats what he was told to do. to the NICE [british health soon to be copied for US health] person who witholds life saving medicaiton or takes 1 month of a two month life expectancy to make up their minds.

    its the difference between top down design of a position, and delegation and deferment in merit to the position. when merit is gone and one gets appointed, such complex rules attempt to replace or control judgement (exacerbated by liability)

  8. OmegaPaladin Says:

    I sincerely doubt I’d do an experiment like that. Partly because I would be wondering about the point of the work (what do you want to learn from this study?), and partly because I’ve had training on IRB stuff, and I would know they couldn’t get away with that.

  9. kamper Says:

    The results of these experiments are always taken as indicators of “obedience to authority,” but there is another, even more troubling aspect. How many of the participants actually enjoyed inflicting the pain and only needed the imprimatur of the ‘doctor’ to indulge those tendencies?

    Abu Ghraib is nothing but this experiment writ large.

  10. Doom Says:

    I think we could all be tricked, somehow. But there are those among us who would personalize it enough that we wouldn’t do it. I don’t even like other people, but that does not allow me to cause them pain… other than trying to make them think. :P I think, in the end, I am more cruel. Most just want to live as is, thinking is more painful than almost anything to many.

    I ought to leave an example… but this isn’t my blog.

  11. SteveH Says:

    Seems to me we’ve all taken part in a great experiment since around 2000. One where MSM has set the template of liberalism’s obvious need to reign in 21st century America, and all others are constantly tested as to just how much ridicule and shame they can hold up to by adhering to our founding principles.

    I’d say we just saw an election where 48% of voters potentially bucked authority. All in all, that ain’t bad.

  12. Bill Dalasio Says:

    Given the general societal demand to “question authority” over the last 30 years or so, one would have expected some authority-questioning to be going on, even despite the subject-selection problem.

    I’m not so sure. It’s always struck me that the demand that we question authority was never a universal expectation, but rather specific to those authorities issuing the diktat.

  13. House of Eratosthenes Says:

    [...] and disturbing, stuff from [...]

  14. dane Says:

    Oaky – I’ve lived with myself long enough through all the good and bad things I have done to KNOW without any doubt I would not inflict that kind of pain just because someone in authority told me it was okay to do so. If however, they told me that person sitting in the chair was the parent of the kids running amok in the grocery store or the mall then I would crank that sucker up to overload.

    I’m just leaving to go out to the store. Hmmm, now where did I put my taser ??

  15. Tom Says:

    I see a link, neo, of this theme to that of your African tribalism post of the other day.

  16. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    When I started in the mental health biz we had an aversive intervention of throwing a glass of water in a woman’s face whenever she stole a cigarette. I did it for about two weeks before refusing to continue.

    I would add another possibility to kamper’s interpretation. It is not merely the authority figure’s say-so that the subjects are responding to. They are not being directed to shock or harm people at random or for no reason. The experiment includes a context that claims that there is some good aim that is sought. The punishment is framed as a training or teaching tool. This changes the equation entirely. It would be plausible that I would sign up for an aversive therapy if I needed to get off drugs or unlearn an attraction to children. I might be more than willing to endure discomfort in such a situation, and would not be surprised if the person administering the shocks, having been told what I was trying to accomplish, was willing to go quite far up the scale, believing he was helping me. (I do not discuss here whether such techniques actually work. The point is whether the subjects believe they work).

    As this is not merely an obedience-to-authority test, we would expect a different crossover point of when folks would balk. Without an authority figure present, but only a note from the recipient, people might still administer shocks, even if they would never just shock people for no reason, even if they had the power.

    On reflection, this isn’t much of an obedience-to-authority experiment until well into the game. It is such in its later stages, but at the beginning, it is more of a test of whether people believe that aversive therapy is worth it for a good cause. In that context, whether the pain is high from the start or gradually increased from a low level is likely significant, and how the potential benefit is described is likely significant as well.

    I don’t think this experiment says what folks think it does.

  17. Recruiting Animal Says:

    It’s easy to say that you wouldn’t do something when you are not facing any threats.

    But when you are in a dangerous military situation, you might seriously consider supporting actions that you would never have considered endorsing before.

    The water-boarding issue must have tried the conscience of many people who couldn’t imagine going along with the requests made in the Milgram experiments.

  18. KM Says:

    I remember an article about Enron – it was about the Psychology of how good people go bad.. Many of the people who went to work for enron, went in with stars in their eyes, and were actually good people.

    They didn’t go into the company with intent to cause harm or create fraud. Unfortunately the environment creates the problem
    Great article
    http://www.magazine.utoronto.ca/05winter/F01.asp

  19. Suspiciously Trustful Says:

    It was a badly designed experiment from the beginning. The participants should have been told that the subject was a prisoner who was performing required community service (they didn’t volunteer). They should have been told in detail the physical effects of different levels of voltage (what level might cause damage and what level might cause death). They should have been informed that the experiment was not part of any research program sanctioned by a university, research hospital, or government agency. Nor should they have been paid to participate.

    But being so explicit and transparent would have simply defeated the purpose of the experiment, which was to “demonstrate” that average people are not “ethical” by nature. People by nature trust authority to a point. Are those who gave “painful” shocks less ethical because they trusted the “doctor”? Are they less ethical because they assumed that no university, hospital or the US government would allow experiments which might cause serious harm or risk of death? Are they less ethical because they had the reasonable expectation that the test subject was fully informed about what to expect in this experiment? Are they less ethical because they didn’t second guess the true purpose of the experiment? Finally, are they less ethical than those who, because of a higher level empathic sensitivity, could not continue to “cause pain”? (I wouldn’t expect to see anyone so sensitive working in an emergency room.)

    People generally don’t do “bad things” except that they have good reasons, and it can happen that they are sometimes deceived by psychologists and society’s leaders into believing that they are doing the right thing when they aren’t.

  20. br549 Says:

    I could easily shock members of congress.

  21. Justin Bowen Says:

    I’m grateful for that fact, and hope and pray that I continue to live, in a country where the ‘authorities’ will never force me to make such horrible choices.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you don’t live in an English-speaking country. If that’s not the case, then I’m not sure you’re connecting the dots. Or perhaps you don’t consider the forcing of others to pay taxes against their will (what do you think they are threatened with if they refuse to pay taxes and refuse to let someone imprison them for doing so?) for policies and programs that they don’t support unethical.

  22. Bugs Says:

    I have to agree with Assistant Village Idiot.

    These subjects were placed in a highly artificial situation, deceived as to the purpose of the experiment, allowed only a limited range of action, and denied information that might influenced their decisions. The scientists were attempting to “isolate” and study the subjects’ “submitting to authority” behavior or perhaps their “making moral choices” behavior. This might work for rats, who presumably don’t know the difference between a laboratory maze and a dumpster. They behave more or less the same in either context. But human beings know the difference. And unlike rats, we do thinkgs for complex and often cryptic reasons.

    As far as I know the researchers didn’t ask why their subjects made the decisions they made. OK, some of them may have been passively obedient to authority. Others may have been sadists. Maybe some didn’t want to look like wimps. A few may have felt they couldn’t quit without breaking the agreement they made with the experimenters. Still others might have thought the whole thing was a joke and nobody was really getting hurt. Some may have believed the “learner” was a willing participant, going through the process for his own good or for the advancement of science. And some others may have feared being punished themselves if they quit. You could come up with a hundred reasons why someone would keep pushing that button, other than a submissive attitide toward authority.

    Remember, the original experiment took place in the 1960s, when authority and rebellion were big issues on campus and elsewhere. I think the experiment tells us more about the experimenters and the times they lived in than it does about the subjects.

  23. neo-neocon Says:

    Actually, Bugs, if you read Milgram’s original book, you’ll find they did quite a few follow-up interviews with subjects as to the why’s of what they did. I read it about twenty years ago, so I can’t remember exactly, but there was quite a bit of data on that. My best recollection is that they experienced a great deal of conflict about what was happening, but since the supposed scientist experimenter kept reassuring them it was okay and there would be no permanent damage to the person they were shocking, they trusted him. This despite the fact that, at higher levels of shock, the person being shocked had said he had a heart condition and it could be very dangerous.

  24. Bugs Says:

    Thanks for the b/g! I’ll have to read up on this some more – I’m relying on incomplete memories, too.

  25. nyomythus Says:

    in part it’s a generational problem .. what perhaps by and large one generate learns must be re-learned with every subsequent generation … footage of Milgram’s experiments are amusing if not horrible .. amusing in that a basic universal human pleasure is gloating over the misfortune of others for a moment before realizing that such thing could happen to us or be paid for by us .. or even to a high conscious ”the solidarity of man” which should kick in sooner than than later .. and better later than never at all.

  26. Micajah Says:

    Does it really amount to an examination of the willingess to submit to “authority” when the pain is not felt by the person who controls the switch? If you want to know whether people will defer to “authority,” shouldn’t you ask them to inflict pain on themselves and see whether they go along with it?

    Comparing the results of this type of experiment to the Holocaust indicates a misunderstanding of the motivations of the people who killed those millions of victims during WWII. The Poles, Lithuanians, and Germans did it willingly, enthusiastically, and without reservation or encouragement. They wanted to kill. “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” is worth reading, as is “There Was A World.”

  27. Tim P Says:

    Earlier I said, “I’m grateful for that fact, and hope and pray that I continue to live, in a country where the ‘authorities’ will never force me to make such horrible choices.”

    Justin Bowen replied,

    I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you don’t live in an English-speaking country. If that’s not the case, then I’m not sure you’re connecting the dots. Or perhaps you don’t consider the forcing of others to pay taxes against their will (what do you think they are threatened with if they refuse to pay taxes and refuse to let someone imprison them for doing so?) for policies and programs that they don’t support unethical.

    Justin, I am sure that you have failed to not only connect the dots as you say, but to even see them.

    To conflate paying taxes whether you believe it ethical or not with being ordered to harm or kill someone is amazing.

    I was not only referring to the Milgram experiment, where subjects thought they were actually hurting another human being, but also to real situations where a person may be forced to hurt another either directly or by ratting them out in order to save their own neck or their loved ones.

    Here’s how Neo summarized the experiment above,

    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.

    Let’s extend Milgram’s experiment to actual real world situations where say for example, a deathsquad came to your house at night, took your child into another room and started whipping them viciously with a wire untill you told them where your uncle is hiding so that they could kill him is not the same as the concious decision that you make to not pay your taxes.
    When you make the choice to not pay taxes, you are consciously exercising your free will to do so. Unless you are a total moron, you know that this action will have unpleasant consequences. Nonetheless, you made the choice.
    Hell, I wish I had every dollar I put into social security back because I know it won’t be there when my time to retire comes, it’s a government run Ponzi scheme, but I keep paying it because the cost of not paying it is greater.

    Believe me, I am grateful for that fact, and hope and pray that I continue to live, in a country where the ‘authorities’ will never force me to make such horrible choices.

    Get a grip.

  28. DerHahn Says:

    Even if the experiment is too flawed in design to answer some questions, it still says a lot about people’s willingness to be taken in by the ‘appeal to authority’ logical fallacy.

    Everyday we’re asked to disregard our own analysis of various social and political questions in favor of deference to ‘experts’ on health care, climate, economics, and social welfare. People who question the analysis of these ‘experts’ are derided as being deniers, intolerant and unenlightened.

    They may not be asking us to turn the thumbscrews on innocent people but there are a lot folks who would like to junk ‘question authority’ now that they support the authority that can make the rest of us do what they want.

  29. Hyman Rosen Says:

    There’s a big difference between questioning authority and questioning expertise. Perhaps if the people in whom you have faith had any of the latter instead of only the former, you might understand.

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About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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