Episode 82: Spooky Psychology Experiments
Reading through a history book, it’s not hard to see examples of egregious violence and wrong doing committed by masses of seemingly “normal” people. In the Nuremberg War Criminal Trials following World War II, the common defense was that soldiers were “just following orders.” But how could this be? How could a human commit such a blatant moral injustice just for the sake of following orders?
That’s exactly what Stanley Milgram wanted to investigate with his experiment in 1963. Milgram advertised in the newspaper looking for male participants to take part in a study of learning at Yale University. Participants for the study were pared off and one was assigned to be the learner and one was assigned to be the teacher. The draw was fixed so that the learner was always a confederate of the study, or pretending to be a real participant, and the teacher would be the real participant.
The learner was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms and the teacher along with the researcher went into another room next door that had an electric shock generator and a row of switches that ranged from 15 volts (slight shock) to 375 volts (danger: severe shock) and 450 volts (XXX). The learner was then given a list of word pairs to remember and the “teacher” was supposed to test him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall the appropriate pair from 4 possible choices.
Every time the learner made a mistake, which was frequent, the teacher was supposed to administer an electric shock, which increased in voltage each time. – there were 30 increments. When the participant naturally refused to administer a shock, the experimenter would go through a series of prompts such as “please continue” “its absolutely essential that you continue” or “you have no choice but to continue.”
All participants in the study continued to 300 volts (just below severe danger) and 65% continued to the highest level, which was lethal dose. The most trouble part of this is that the confederate in the study was instructed to scream in pain, ask to be let out, and plead for the experiment to stop.
There were many variations of this test that lead to different conclusions about the participant’s behavior. For instance if the participant was instructing someone else to flip the lever, their obedience increased and over 90% shocked to the maximum voltage, indicating that obedience increase when there is less social responsibility. On the flip side if the participant actually had to physically place the confederate’s hand onto a shock plate, obedience fell drastically because they were no longer buffered from their actions.
This experiment is troubling for many reasons. Mainly, it revealed that relatively ordinary people were capable of committing terrible acts simply because they were told to. It’s a slippery slope. Once authority is established and there are other people following along, diffusion of responsibility occurs.
Milgrams findings were not all grim though. In a different variation of the study, there were two other participants who were actually confederates of the studies posing as teachers like the participant. The confederate teachers were instructed to stop at 150 volts and 210 volts. When the participants were in the presence of others who disobeyed the authority figure, their obedience dropped to 10%. When others are unafraid to speak out and step up, blind obedience to authority can crumple. Perhaps this is why modern dictatorships work to isolate their people by removing access to the internet and other forms of influence.
Obedience is a powerful, but sometimes fragile force.