Our Ongoing Willingness to Obey Morally Objectionable Orders

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New research from Poland successfully recreates Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience studies from the 1960s.

By Tom Jacobs

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(Photo: Simon Wijers/Unsplash)

It’s one of the best-known psychology experiments of all time. Its implications have been debated over the decades. But after more than a half-century, will recreating it produce the same troubling behavior?

As you may have guessed, we’re talking about Stanley Milgram’s famous “obedience” studies. They provided evidence that ordinary people were willing to administer increasingly painful electric shocks to strangers if they were instructed to do so in the name of science.

This research dates from the early 1960s — arguably, a far more conformist era than our own. Would people behave similarly if placed in the same situation today?

A new study from Poland, published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, reports the answer is an emphatic yes.

“Upon learning about Milgram’s experiments, a vast majority of people claim that ‘I would never behave in such a manner,’” says Tomasz Grzyb, a co-author of the paper. But he and his colleagues found “a striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual.”

Although Milgram’s subjects weren’t really inflicting pain on others — the researchers created that illusion by, among other methods, letting them hear screams coming from an adjacent room — the methodology made the American Psychological Association uncomfortable, and, in 1973, it passed new guidelines effectively banning this type of deception. This essentially prevented the studies’ duplication.

For a 2007 experiment inspired by the misbehavior of American guards at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, researchers duplicated Milgram, but only to a point: Participants had the option of raising the level of electricity administered to the unseen test subject up to 150 volts, rather than the far more dangerous figure of 450 volts used in the original studies. (Seventy percent of participants took it to the maximum.)

The Polish researchers decided to follow that same method. They note that, in Milgram’s studies, “a decisive majority of people who pressed the 10th button (33 out of 40) could be convinced to press all of the remaining ones.”

The 80 participants, who were recruited in a university town, ranged in age from 18 to 69. None had taken a psychology course or undergone psychological counseling. They were assigned the role of “teacher,” which meant they were to “read one syllable and wait for the learner’s response.”

If the “learner’s” response was incorrect, according to a set of answers they were given, they were instructed to administer an electrical shock. The amount of electricity got larger with each subsequent wrong answer, up to the aforementioned 150 volts. If a participant hesitated, the researcher — precisely mimicking Milgram — told them “Please continue,” or “The experiment requires that you continue.”

And continue they did. Ninety percent continued all the way to the end, even though all answered in the affirmative when asked “Do you think it hurts?” This was actually higher than the 85 percent of Milgram’s participants who agreed to administer 150 volts in the same experiment.

It’s worth remembering that this experiment was conducted in Poland, a nation now under the control of a political party that “values governing with a strong hand rather than freedom and democracy,” the researchers write. With the threat of authoritarianism similarly rising in many nations, the demonstrated willingness of ordinary citizens to commit what some would see as torture is particularly chilling.

Overall, the findings suggest the effect Milgram identified is real and lasting. But what, exactly, did he prove? The original assumption that the experiment proved “the capacity for evil lies dormant in everyone , ready to be awakened under the right set of circumstances,” as The Atlantic put it, has been widely questioned in recent years.

In a 2012 essay, two psychologists argued that the dynamic he uncovered is more along the lines of misplaced idealism. They argue people are indeed capable of cruel behavior, but only if they strongly identify with an authority figure (such as a scientific researcher) and accept their rationale that the pain they inflict is necessary to accomplish a greater good.

Whatever the mechanism, these experiments reveal a disturbing side of human nature, one that is clearly not restricted to a specific time or place. Perhaps if they are recreated once again in another 50 years, the results will be different.

But to use terminology Milgram was very familiar with, that would be something of a shock.

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