2008 December 21 Sunday
Experimental Subjects Obey Killer Orders Just As In 1961

Think over the last 50 years that society has gone through huge changes that make people less willing to blindly follow authority? Think that the 1960s were a big turning point that caused people to question authority? Think they passed this down to their children and altered our relationship to authority figures? Nope. In a repeat of Stanley Milgram's classic experiment on obedience in experimental subjects the subjects of today are just as willing to deliver lethal electricity doses.

WASHINGTON Nearly 50 years after one of the most controversial behavioral experiments in history, a social psychologist has found that people are still just as willing to administer what they believe are painful electric shocks to others when urged on by an authority figure.

Jerry M. Burger, PhD, replicated one of the famous obedience experiments of the late Stanley Milgram, PhD, and found that compliance rates in the replication were only slightly lower than those found by Milgram. And, like Milgram, he found no difference in the rates of obedience between men and women.

Burger's findings are reported in the January issue of American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association. The issue includes a special section reflecting on Milgram's work 24 years after his death on Dec. 20, 1984, and analyzing Burger's study.

Burger conducted his experiment at Santa Clara University. Milgram originally conducted his experiment at Yale. My guess is that a lot of Yale students would recognize this experiment and therefore refuse to play along. But it would have been a lot more interesting if a group of professors had gotten together and repeated this experiment at several universities before publishing their results.

Stanley Milgram was an assistant professor at Yale University in 1961 when he conducted the first in a series of experiments in which subjects thinking they were testing the effect of punishment on learning administered what they believed were increasingly powerful electric shocks to another person in a separate room. An authority figure conducting the experiment prodded the first person, who was assigned the role of "teacher" to continue shocking the other person, who was playing the role of "learner." In reality, both the authority figure and the learner were in on the real intent of the experiment, and the imposing-looking shock generator machine was a fake.

Milgram found that, after hearing the learner's first cries of pain at 150 volts, 82.5 percent of participants continued administering shocks; of those, 79 percent continued to the shock generator's end, at 450 volts. In Burger's replication, 70 percent of the participants had to be stopped as they continued past 150 volts a difference that was not statistically significant.

"Nearly four out of five of Milgram's participants who continued after 150 volts went all the way to the end of the shock generator," Burger said. "Because of this pattern, knowing how participants react at the 150-volt juncture allows us to make a reasonable guess about what they would have done if we had continued with the complete procedure."

This experiment did not exactly mirror Milgram's original experiment. So it is not a true comparison of attitudes now and almost 50 years ago. We really need experiments like this that compare different types of people in different settings. Will people all around the world do the same? Will smart and dumb people do the same as average people? How do young and old differ? Conservative, liberal, and libertarian, communist, socialist, and Episcopalian? Are the people who refuse to go all the way up in voltages wired up differently due to their genes? Are they otherwise better or worse citizens than those who followed orders up to a high voltage?

Also, are highly empathetic people more or less likely to turn up the voltage all the way? Are extroverts or introverts more likely to follow instructions even when they suspect someone is suffering as a result? We are eventually going to know much more about biological mechanisms as well as developmental influences and environmental factors that cause differences in behavior toward authority and differences in empathy, altruism, and many other traits. Once we know more we are going to be faced with a very difficult problem which we do not face today: what to choose once we can choose more traits for offspring?

By Randall Parker    2008 December 21 10:28 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (30)
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