In a new study, most people willingly pulled a lever to deliver pain to others when instructed to do so, showing that little has changed in the near half-century since psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous electric shock experiment. Milgram’s experiment revealed our propensity to do harm when encouraged by authority, a topic of great interest in the post-World War II years. A new iteration of the experiment (with added precautions) revealed that seven out of ten people will give painful electric shocks to another person as part of what they are told is a scientific investigation. “What we found is validation of the same argument—if you put people into certain situations, they will act in surprising, and maybe often even disturbing, ways,” [Reuters] says researcher Jerry Burger.
In the 1961 experiment, Yale University professor Milgram asked volunteers to deliver increasingly strong electric “shocks” to other people, who appeared to be test subjects but were really actors, if they answered certain questions incorrectly. Milgram found that, after hearing an actor cry out in pain at 150 volts, 82.5 percent of participants continued administering shocks, most to the maximum 450 volts [Reuters]. The results, now a fixture in psychology textbooks, suggested that people’s moral attitudes can be suppressed when they’re put in a situation of obedience. Although no actual shocks were delivered and the sounds of agony came from a tape-recording, many of the volunteers suffered stress from the task and replication of the experiments was deemed unethical.
In the new study, to be published in American Psychologist, Burger replicated the gist of the original experiment but included measures to minimize the psychological stress on the test subjects, such as limiting the shocks to 150 volts and not letting them administer any further shocks even if they indicated their willingness. The new participants were reminded repeatedly that they could stop at any time, while in Milgram’s version, participants were told, “The experiment requires that you go on,” if they expressed hesitation. Again, however, the vast majority of the 29 men and 41 women taking part were willing to push the button knowing it would cause pain to another human. Even when another actor entered the room and questioned what was happening, most were still prepared to continue [BBC News]. About 70 percent continued the shocks up to 150 volts and were willing to go even higher. “That was surprising and disappointing,” Burger said [Reuters].
Burger believes his study demonstrates not only the power of blind obedience, but also that certain situations normalize immoral behavior. In this case, the gradual incremental nature of the task—administering slightly more painful shocks each time—may have eased the shift from normal behavior, he suggests. Burger cautions against any leap of judgment from laboratory studies to complex social behavior, but the findings do shed some light on the factors that contribute to genocide and torture. Says Burger: “People learning about Milgram’s work often wonder whether results would be any different today…Many point to the lessons of the Holocaust and argue that there is greater societal awareness of the dangers of blind obedience. But what I found is the same situational factors that affected obedience in Milgram’s experiments still operate today” [Telegraph].
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