Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Milgram Authority Obedience/Compliance Experiment Explains Much About What We're Seeing in Society Today

So, my husband is watching Tracy Morgan's "Scare Tactics" today, in which friends pull scary pranks on their friends and film it (some of which are questionably ethical themselves lol).  One of the pranks reminded me of Milgram's Authority Obedience Experiment - and it dawned on me of how relevant Milgram's experiment is today.

For those who don't know, in 1963, Stanley Milgram, and Social Psychologist at Yale, performed a study, seeking to understand how the Nazis justified to themselves objectifying, torturing, and murdering 6 million people - and additionally, raised ethical questions as to experiments performed on other humans and animals (not only by the Nazis, but by Milgram himself).

Essentially, his theory was that if a person(s) seemingly in  power or with authority simply told a group with less power that someone deserved punishment, and ordered them to display aggression towards that person/group, people automatically believed them and obeyed - even if the order was to physically harm to other human beings.

Though people balked that people aren't that stupid, to prove the theory, he set up a fake experiment, where the the subject of the experiment was told he was helping with a psychology experiment regarding how people learn.

The subject enters the room with another person who is presented as another "study helper," but is actually an actor.  The two draw lots as to who will be the "teacher" and who will be the "learner" - except of course the cards are rigged to always have the subject be the "teacher."

The "learner" (actor) is led to another room and the "teacher" witnesses him being strapped to electrodes.

The teacher then returns to the other room to conduct the experiment.

He is told by a man in a gray lab coat, who is the presented as the scientist, that the subject, as the teacher, will be asking questions to the "learner" in the next room, and for every wrong answer, the "teacher" will administer an electric shock - and increase the electric shock with each wrong answer.

The shocks ranged for 30V (labeled "mild") to 450V labeled "very severe."

He was given audio, so that he could hear the "learners" painful outbursts.

The setup looked something like this ...

If they struggled with continuing to administer the shocks, they were given a series of prods to continue from the white-coated scientist:

Prod 1: Please continue.
Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.

Of course, the actor was told to give purposeful wrong answers to receive electric shocks and cry out in pain.

The study was performed 18 times, a total of 636 participants - all white males, ages 20 to 50, skilled laborers to professionals.

The results were 65% of the participants continued to administer to the full 450V of electricity to the "learner" (supposedly rendering them nonresponsive) - and 100% continued to 300V of electricity to the "learner" (enough to permanently injure them.)

There was some correlation between how physically close in proximity the "authority" was to the "teacher."

(I found this interesting, considering social media and aggression studies currently being done).

Milgram had this to say about his conclusion: 

"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations.
I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist.
Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.
The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.'

Milgram himself only performed the experiment once, but it was performed 18 times on 636 people.  This is not the "magic" random sample standard of 1200 people - but it made a lasting impression.

It could not be performed again today because of public awareness of the experiment, which would bias the results - however, it WOULD be interesting to perform this study on women.

Essentially, it at least gave some credence to his theory that at least part of the reason the Nazis were able to objectify and murder so many Jews was that a person or person in an authority position that they respected told them to.

Of course, that's not the only piece of that puzzle - scapegoating - is another big piece.

But it's interesting how we can see that on display today - mainly with Trump.

However, see if you've ever seen this in other situations in society, which has you scratching your head about why groups of people went along with things they knew were harmful to others.

And that is Social Psychology 101.

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