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Psychologists find a way to replicate Milgram's classic obedience experiment
Psychologists in America are to publish a partial replication of the infamous Milgram experiments on obedience to authority. The classic 1960s research is often invoked by commentators seeking to explain the latest human atrocities - for example, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American guards at Abu Ghraib. But Stanley Milgram's paradigm, which involved participants administering electric shocks to another person, hasn't been replicated in over three decades, due to ethical concerns.
To re-cap, in Milgram's experiments participants were allocated the role of teacher in a fixed draw, and were led to believe they were issuing shocks to another participant, the 'learner', (actually an actor) each time this person made a mistake in a memory test. Participants were told the shocks were painful but not harmful, although labelling on the shock generator carried warnings of harm for the highest voltages.
Like many social psychologists, Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University, California and his colleagues knew that Milgram's original data showed the 150 volt shock level was a pivotal point in the experiment. 'But as I was looking over these tables,' Burger tells The Psychologist, 'I was struck by the fact that 150 was more than a common stopping point. It was actually something of a point of no return.'
In Milgram's best known 'Experiment 5', the 150v level was the first moment at which the actor being shocked said they wanted the experiment to stop. If a participant continued to administer shocks beyond this level it was extremely likely they would go all the way to administering the highest 450v shock (79 per cent of such participants did).
The new study replicated Milgram's methodology with great attention to detail, including the use of a replica shock generator and with a script that stayed faithful to the original. Crucially, however, the new version was stopped immediately after participants made their decision as to whether or not to continue issuing shocks beyond 150v. Potential participants were also subjected to extensive screening, with the psychologically vulnerable or anyone aware of Milgram's research being excluded.
The new study, in press at American Psychologist, found 70 per cent of 40 participants were willing to proceed beyond the 150v shock level - a proportion only slightly lower than Milgram's figure of 82.5 per cent. Burger's team said their finding provided compelling evidence that people's obedience to authority today, under lab conditions, is comparable to that which was observed in the 1960s.
To the researchers' surprise, disobedience was no higher in another condition in which participants witnessed what they thought was another participant (actually an actor) refusing to continue with the experiment. Further analysis also showed participants' empathy levels had no bearing on their obedience, although a greater desire for control was linked with more disobedience.
Burger says he hopes this new approach to replicating Milgram's work will allow psychologists to further investigate the situational factors that impact on obedience levels. 'Understanding how and why people respond to these situational factors could provide valuable information for policy makers,' he says. 'We have to be careful when making the leap from a laboratory study to something as complex as the Holocaust. But understanding the social psychology operating in the kinds of situations that interested Milgram - atrocities, massacres, genocide - is an important step in the process.'
By coincidence, a new meta-analysis of data combined from eight of Milgram's obedience experiments has also just been published in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Dominic Packer, a researcher at Ohio State University, also identifies the 150v shock level as a critical moment in Milgram studies. He found that of those participants who were ultimately disobedient, 36.8 per cent chose to stop at the 150v level (with 29 possible shock levels, a random distribution would have seen just 3.5 per cent disobey at 150v).
Milgram observed that at the heart of his experiments lay a conflict, between the desires of the experimenter and of the electrocuted 'learner'. According to Packer, the 150v level, when the learner of the experiment first said he wanted to stop, was the moment that participants saw this conflict in stark relief - when they had to choose between the authority of the experimenter or the rights of the suffering learner. By contrast, expressions of pain from the learner, which began from the earliest shocks and grew in intensity with higher voltage, did not have a significant impact on the participants' decision making.
Packer says these observations have important implications for the treatment of prisoners in interrogation scenarios. Post 9-11 there has been a tendency for authorities to ignore legal rights, for example, as laid down in the Geneva Convention, claiming instead that prisoners will not be subjected to undue pain. However, as Packer concluded, 'pain did not tend to be sufficient for disobedience in these studies; thus, when prisoners' rights are curtailed or ambiguous, expressions of pain may provide little protection from inhumane treatment.' Packer says this means 'harmful treatment of prisoners may be more likely when standards for their appropriate treatment are ambiguous ... and, in particular, when authority figures appear to imply that the harsh techniques (e.g., waterboarding) are necessary and relatively innocuous.'
Edited: 08/07/2008 at 09:36 AM by christian
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