Friday, June 24, 2016

Would Stanley Milgram Find the Same Thing Today?

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to a group about one of my passions – no, not writing, but rather, smart home automation.  A lot of that technology is immature and constantly changing, making it truly a geek pastime…which is why I like it so much.

At the end of my talk, one lady came up to me and said, ‘I’m really sorry.  Your talk was fascinating, but putting you on right after lunch was brutal.  I couldn’t keep my eyes open.  I don’t know what they were thinking when they put this schedule together.’  Standing right beside me was the teacher…who had indeed built the schedule.

Later, out of the earshot of the class, the teacher mentioned that comments like that were common.  They were especially prevalent in the context of any type of evaluation or competition, when rather forceful demands for changes were made because ‘something wasn’t fair’ or because ‘I can do that because you never said I couldn’t.’  No one seemed to want to do what was planned or when it was planned.

All I could think was that according to Stanley Milgram, all the teacher needed to say was ‘the class requires that you continue.’

If the paraphrase above means nothing to you, then I’d guess you were not a student of psychology, because nearly every one of us has read, and usually remembers, the results from the Milgram Obedience Studies at Yale.  And that’s because, their results are disturbing and seem to reveal an unwelcome fact about human nature.  And that fact is, most people are willing to obey the direction of an authority figure, even if it involves hurting another.  In the case of the study, a researcher directed the participants to deliver painful electric shocks to another person, even when the recipient of those shocks was banging on the wall and complaining of a heart condition.  And this obedience was obtained with the researcher using only four standard, somewhat bland prompts:

1. Please continue.
2. The experiment requires that you continue.
3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

Most of us who read those results thought we would not have delivered the full sequence of stronger and stronger shocks, which ended when the scale read 450 volts and when the recipient in the adjacent room had gone silent.  Most of us hoped we would not have done that.  But the fact remained, on average over several replications, more than 60% obeyed the researcher with no more justification than what is given above.

Today, the Milgram studies cannot be fully replicated.  The procedure no longer meets the ethical guidelines for the use of humans in experimental research, and for good reason in my opinion.  Because although the entire procedure was a ruse and no shocks were given, the participants who thought they were delivering shocks suffered substantially.  From all accounts of their behaviors – sweating, trembling, laughing nervously or uncontrollable, digging their fingernails into their skin – it was a terrifying experience, even if they did persist.

So now that the Milgram procedure is off the table, I’m left to wonder if it is possible that the pendulum has swung, and that today, we are less likely to blindly follow the dictates of an authority figure who simply says, the class requires that you continue.  And I wonder, as the teacher implied, that maybe it has swung too far.  But even if we are a bit beyond the midpoint of equilibrium, maybe that’s not a bad place to be, considering where we have been.

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