Saturday, March 3, 2012

The "lost" Milgram experiments

You've probably heard of the famous Milgram experiment, the one that tested how far participants would go in administering electric shocks to another human, if told to do so by authority figure. If you've taken any intro psych class, you'll have heard of it.  But you probably haven't heard about the 20-40 other variants of the experiment, some of which may change your interpretation of the original.

Milgram's Shock Box. Source


If you haven't heard of the original experiment, here's a quick rundown:

The year: 1962; the setting: a lab at Yale University.   Participants think they're participating in an experiment testing memory and punishment.  They (the "teachers") read word pairs to another partner in the experiment, the "student."

The student then goes into another room, where the teacher quizzes them on their memory of the word pairs – which word was matched to which.  If they answer the question incorrectly, the teacher is instructed by the scientist (also in the room) to administer an electric shock to the student.

The setup.  Source

The huge finding was that 65 percent of the participants (the majority!) would shock the students, and would do continue to do so with a higher and higher voltage (+15 volts each time) until the experiment was over, even if the student (who was an actor) cried out, banged on walls, and eventually, even stopped responding (i.e., was unconscious or dead).


Here are the other variants of the experiment you might not have heard about:

Variation #3: If the teacher was placed in the same room as the learner, obedience dropped to 40 percent.

Variation #4:  If the teacher had to hold down the learner's hand to the shock plate, obedience dropped down to 30 percent.

Variation #14:  If the scientist was instead a regular man (not wearing a white coat), obedience dropped to 20 percent.

Variation #17:  If there was another "teacher" (actor) in the room who refused to go on with the experiment, obedience dropped to 10 percent.

Variation #15:  If there were two scientists in the room who disagreed with each other, obedience dropped to 0 percent.


Obviously, some of the participants struggled to continue with the experiment.  If so, the scientist was instructed to prod the participant along with key phrases.  In order, they were:
  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
Here's what's interesting:  If any participant ever reached the last prod, and was essentially told he had no choice but to continue the experiment, he would inevitably refuse to go on.

It's interesting because Milgram's experiment is supposed to show that people will obey authority figures, when in fact, it also shows that people don't obey authority figures.  They'll continue with the experiment when they think they have a choice – maybe it's because they're engaged in the task, doing it for the greater good of science, but it's not because they think they have to.


Source of inspiration for this post: Radiolab