Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Milgram experiment and what it means

In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram invited volunteers to participate in a study on memory and learning although the true nature of his experiment was to investigate obedience to authority.  He told participants that they were randomly assigned to either the role of teacher or learner when in fact all participants were assigned to be the teacher as every learner was a paid actor.  The participant and learner were put in separate rooms, so they could not see each other but could hear each other. The participant was to ask a series of questions to the learner, and as the teacher they were told to shock the learner whenever the learner gave an incorrect response. With each incorrect response, the participant was to increase the shock voltage by 15 volts with a maximum voltage of 450 volts, which can be lethal.  Another confederate, John Williams, was dressed in a white lab coat and acted as the authority figure in the room responding that the participant should continue the study if or when they protested.  Once the study was completed Milgram reported that 65 percent of participants repeatedly administered shocks that they believed caused severe pain and possibly death to the learner.   

Milgram conducted this study because he was interested in trying to explain the behavior of Nazis during the Holocaust.  According to Gina Perry, who is a psychologist and author of a new book entitled Behind the Shock Machine, at the time Milgram’s research was first published the American public was fascinated by the images of Adolph Eichmann that they saw on their televisions from his trial.  Hannah Arendt, covering the trial, described his impassivity and ordinariness as terrifying.  Milgram wanted to show that everyone was capable of being both ordinary and evil if one surrenders his/her will to an authority figure.  For many, Milgram seemed to be justifying the “just following orders” defense of many Nazi perpetrators.  Milgram in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, argued that subordinates, such as those under Adolf Hitler, fall into what he described as a  “profound slumber” where a man is capable of things “alien to his nature,” and feel “virtually guiltless.” Milgram wanted to re-create this “profound slumber” to see if ordinary people really engage in evil behavior.  And according to his published article, and later his book, the answer was yes, ordinary people would engage in evil behavior. 

The reason I’m writing about this experiment is because his experiment is usually accepted as valid, and then used as evidence of a psychological truth that we are all inherently evil and that evil will come out when given permission by an authority figure.  But the evidence for this supposed truth is much less credible than originally thought. Perry discovered through archival research that the results Milgram published were not always an accurate portrayal of what he observed in his experiment.  Thus his description of Nazi perpetrators committing crimes in a “zombie-like” state may not be as accurate as his original publications imply; meaning that the “I was just following orders” defense may not be as supported by Milgram’s experiment as is usually believed. 

For example, Milgram wrote in his original article that 65% of participants conformed to the authority figure and administered severe pain to the learner.  This number implies that there was one experiment, but what Perry discovered was that Milgram conducted 24 different variations of this experiment and when Perry took into account all of the variations she found that in over half of the 24 variations a majority of participants disobeyed the authority figure.   So the statistical evidence is not as straightforward as was presented by Milgram.  Another issue was his methodology.  One reason for conducting a lab experiment is to have tight controls over all variables so that you can be certain your independent variable (authority figure) impacted your dependent variable (shocks) and that your results are not due to some other extraneous variable.  When listening to the audio recordings, Perry noticed  that John Williams, the individual playing the authority figure in the room, was not following a clear script.  Milgram in his publications wrote that Williams followed a strict four phrase response to any questions asked by the participant (teacher) but according to Perry’s research, Williams often went off-script and commanded subjects up to 25 times to continue with the experiment.  This hurts the credibility of his findings as that type of behavior shows the researcher trying to create a certain response, so the participant response is no longer organic but produced by the researcher. And finally Perry discovered correspondence between Milgram and his participants after the study was completed documenting how some participants were suspicious that the scenario was a hoax.  As Perry points out, Candid Camera was the most popular show on television at the time.   For example, participants told Milgram that the learner cries seemed to come from the corner of the room, like from a tape recording.  Others noted that they actually decreased the voltage yet the learner’s cries intensified.  As Perry writes, the skepticism of the participants hurts the validity of the study, as the participant’s belief in the scenario was crucial to measuring how much pain people were willing to inflict on someone.  If participants were suspicious, they may have demonstrated demand characteristics and simply started to do what it was clear the researchers wanted. 

Perry’s research is important for us to know about because many believe that Milgram provided solid evidence to support the supposed truth that we are all ordinary and all capable of evil. Because once we begin to accept that as true, we begin to act in ways that corroborate that truth; thus we become self-fulfilling prophecies.  Whether you believe that Milgram’s finding are valid or not, he does provide an important reminder that we should all be critical readers and thinkers. 

Perry, Gina.  The Shocking Truth of the Notorious Milgram Obedience Experiments.  October 2, 2013.   

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