Friday, December 19, 2008

Psychology 101: Just following orders

These experiments are absolutely fascinating to me. I remember watching video footage of the original Milgram study in undergrad, and I will never forget it. One thing they don't mention in this article is that the maximum voltage of 450 is clearly labeled "DANGER: LETHAL" on the machine.

I'm just copying this over from CNN:

Milgram, who also came up with the theory behind "six degrees of separation" -- the idea that everyone is connected to everyone else through a small number of acquaintances -- set out to figure out why people would turn against their own neighbors in circumstances such as Nazi-occupied Europe. Referring to Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, Milgram wrote in 1974, "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?"

His experiment in its standard form included a fake shock machine, a "teacher," a "learner" and an experimenter in a laboratory setting. The participant was told that he or she had to teach the student to memorize a pair of words, and the punishment for a wrong answer was a shock from the machine.

The teacher sat in front of the shock machine, which had 30 levers, each corresponding to an additional 15 volts. With each mistake the student made, the teacher had to pull the next lever to deliver a more painful punishment.

While the machine didn't generate shocks and a recorded voice track simulated painful reactions, the teacher was led to believe that he or she was shocking a student, who screamed and asked to leave at higher voltages, and eventually fell silent.

If the teacher questioned continuing as instructed, the experimenter simply said, "The experiment requires that you go on," said Thomas Blass, author of the biography "The Man Who Shocked The World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram" and the Web site

About 65 percent of participants pulled levers corresponding to the maximum voltage -- 450 volts -- in spite of the screams of agony from the learner.

"What the experiment shows is that the person whose authority I consider to be legitimate, that he has a right to tell me what to do and therefore I have obligation to follow his orders, that person could make me, make most people, act contrary to their conscience," Blass said.

An update

Because of revised ethical standards for human subject research, this kind of experiment cannot be replicated exactly. But Jerry Burger, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, made some tweaks to see if Milgram's results hold up today. Watch an audio slide show for more on these experiments »

His study's design imitated Milgram's, even using the same scripts for the experimenter and suffering learner, but the key difference was that this experiment stopped at 150 volts -- when the learner starts asking to leave. In Milgram's experiment, 79 percent of participants who got to that point went all the way to the maximum shock, he said.

To eliminate bias from the fame of Milgram's experiment, Burger ruled out anyone who had taken two or more college-level psychology classes, and anyone who expressed familiarity with it in the debriefing. The "teachers" in this recent experiment, conducted in 2006, also received several reminders that they could quit whenever they wanted, unlike in Milgram's study.

The new results correlate well with Milgram's: 70 percent of the 40 participants were willing to continue after 150 volts, compared with 82.5 percent in Milgram's study -- a difference that is not statistically significant, Burger said.

Still, some psychologists quoted in the same issue of American Psychologist questioned how comparable this study is to Milgram's, given the differences in methods.

The idea of blind obedience isn't as important in these studies as the larger message about the power of the situation, Burger said. It's also significant that the participant begins with small voltages that increase in small doses over time.

"It's that gradual incremental nature that, as we know, is a very powerful way to change attitudes and behaviors," he said.

Stanford Prison Experiment

This idea of circumstances driving immoral behavior also came out in the Stanford Prison Experiment, a study done in 1971 that is the subject of a film in preproduction, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Work on the film will resume in 2009 after McQuarrie's "Valkyrie" is released, his spokesperson said.

In this study, designed by Stanford's Zimbardo, two dozen male college students were randomly designated as either prison guards or prisoners, and lived in the basement of the university's psychology building playing these roles in their respective uniforms.

Within three days, participants had extreme stress reactions, Zimbardo said. The guards became abusive to the prisoners -- sexually taunting them, asking them to strip naked and demanding that they clean toilet bowls with their bare hands, Zimbardo said. Five prisoners had to be released before the study was over.

Zimbardo's own role illustrated his point: Because he took on the role of prison administrator, he became so engrossed in the jail system that he didn't stop the experiment as soon as this cruelty began, he said.

"If I were simply the principal experimenter, I would have ended it after the second kid broke down," he said. "We all did bad things in this study, including me, but it's diagnostic of the power situation."

What was so interesting to me was watching the poor subjects administering the shocks. They sincerely believed they were hurting, or even killing, a fellow participant, but they also sincerely believed that they didn't have a choice. The man in the white coat said to do it, and they did it. But they look so upset, they're in so much distress. They work so hard to "teach" the poor "student" the right answer, they really want them to get it right, and they don't want to have to shock them again. They don't know what to do, and the option of getting up and walking out just doesn't occur to most people. A few do, and they seem like ordinary people. We're not talking about Mel Gibson in Braveheart here. Normal folks. How are they different?

The original study mostly focused on authority and obedience, the idea that the people did what they did because someone told them to. And that's definitely a part of it. But the revision from 2006 seemed to remove a good portion of that, reminding subjects that they can leave anytime, and our society has changed a lot in its view of authority, and yet the results were very similar. Is it more of a desire to please, to behave as expected in any given situation? To be "normal"? We reference other people so much to know how to behave; I've mentioned that before here. The question is, at what point does that stop being helpful and normal, and become pathological?

I tacked the prison study on too, even though I'm most gripped by the Milgram study. Most people function to fulfill whatever "role" they think they've been assigned. Football teams with a "mean" mascot and black uniforms commit more fouls than players with a benign mascot and white uniforms. Why is that?

That's why I majored in psych. Fascinating stuff.


1 comment:

Gabriele said...

Fantastic post, I love this stuff!!