Would you torture or hurt another, even kill, just because you were ordered to by an authority figure?
Beware your answer. A modern reproduction of a classic behavioral experiment of the 1960s suggests many people would.
In 1961 Stanley Milgram carried out one of the most famous and controversial psychology experiments of modern times.
People were asked to give what they believed were increasingly painful electric shocks to others, even potentially fatal ones, in the name of science. The people being tortured by electricity were in fact just actors and pretend to writhe and scream in pain.
But the “subjects” of the experiment didn’t know that. They believed the pain was real and yet, when told to do so by the researcher, were willing to inflict more and more pain and actually risk killing someone else. Some people even pressed the button when they were told the jolt would be a potentially fatal 450 volts.
It was a sad scientific proof of something horrible about our species that we would all rather not believe.
The recent study, performed by Santa Clara University professor Jerry M. Burger, was an attempt at reproducing Milgram’s original experiments. The results came out much the same. The shocking findings (no pun intended) were published in the January 2008 issue of American Psychologist, which included a special section about Milgram’s work 24 years after his death.
According to Prof. 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 attitude prevailed as in Milgram’s experiments.”
In Milgram’s experiments, 82.5% of the participants continued administering shocks even after hearing the first cries of pain at the alleged 150-volts level.
In Burger’s replication, 70% also wanted to continue when they hit that same level. The difference between the two figures was not statistically significant.
Men and women were just as bad as each other.
However, the experiments weren’t completely identical, because of ethical concerns and codes that have developed since Milgram’s time. For example, Burger lowered the maximum "shock" level from potentially fatal 450 volts to 150 volts.
He also screened out any potential participants who had taken more than two psychology courses in college, were familiar with Milgram’s research or, based on an evaluation of a clinical psychologist, might have a negative reaction to the study procedure.
The subjects in Burger’s study were told at least three times that they could quit at any time and still receive $50 for participating in the experiment. There were few quitters.
SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, Dec. 19, 2008