Home » News, Psychology » Remember that psych experiment that showed…

Remember that psych experiment that showed…

… that most ordinary people would torture others to death if a guy in a lab coat told them to?

Milgram reported that 65 percent of his subjects continued to shock the learners even when the latter protested, cited heart problems, and then went silent. He later described the typical subject as one who “divests himself of responsibility” becoming an “agent of external authority.” (One hitch was, obedience cratered when the participants knew each other.)

As Tom Bartlett puts it in Chronicle of Higher Education, “Most of us, in other words, are potential Nazis.” Indeed, that is the version taught to introductory psychology classes to this day.

But there is another, more nuanced version of the story. First, contrary to the “shocked, shocked” claims one often hears, Milgram was reporting what everyone in his day who had read George Orwell’s then-futurist classic 1984 (1948) actually expected to hear.

But… was it true? More.

But… was it true?

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5 Responses to Remember that psych experiment that showed…

  1. Very good article Denyse.

  2. The subjects should have made citizen’s arrests or called the police. And attempted bullying should have been met with a duly serious response.

  3. But… was it true?

    Unfortunately, yes, as in no variation was there less than 40% compliance. Moreover, the key findings have been replicated many times.

    Australian psychologist Gina Perry, who diligently studied the original experiment data and the still living subjects, says that he misrepresented his findings, that the “zombie-like, slavish obedience” wasn’t what he’d observed.

    Nor what he reported. From the Wikipedia summary:

    In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40)[1] of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock, though many were very uncomfortable doing so; at some point, every participant paused and questioned the experiment; some said they would refund the money they were paid for participating in the experiment. Throughout the experiment, subjects displayed varying degrees of tension and stress. Subjects were sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin, and some were even having nervous laughing fits or seizures

    Then there is this:

    Significantly, only the widely reported variation, involving 40 subjects, achieved 65% compliance. Perry notes, “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.”

    The purpose of the many variations was to discover factors that mediated obedience to authority. Some variations (increased proximity to learner, less proximity to authority, storefront setting rather than lab on Yale campus) elicited reduced obedience, particularly increasing proximity to the learner. The finding of reduced obedience under many variations was a valuable finding.

  4. Bill, the experiment is flawed by design. Electrocuting people in today’s word can bring you to jail. The people who you shock can bring you down. Thus it could be argued the majority knew the experiment was a hoax and went for the money. Noone actualy saw the alleged victim. Noone could thus confirm they ware causing the pain. A lab coat means two things for the experimental settings :the test is bogus and the test is safe (ethics tenure board and legal requirements). What a dumb idea for an experiment.

  5. Interesting film on the study.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCVlI-_4GZQ

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