It has been a topic that has been fascinating me for quite a while now: are the insights from the famous Milgram-experiment valid or not. Why I have been questioning this, is because there has been criticism lately:
…several scholars raised new criticisms of the research based on their analysis of the transcripts and audio from the original experiments, or on new simulations or partial replications of the experiments. These contemporary criticisms add to past critiques, profoundly undermining the credibility of the original research and the way it is usually interpreted. That Milgram’s studies had a mighty cultural and scholarly impact is not in dispute; the meaning of what he found most certainly is.
BPS Digest sums up the most important modern criticisms:
- When a participant hesitated in applying electric shocks, the actor playing the role of experimenter was meant to stick to a script of four escalating verbal “prods”. In fact, he frequently improvised, inventing his own terms and means of persuasion. Gina Perry (author of Behind The Shock Machine) has said the experiment was more akin to an investigation of “bullying and coercion” than obedience.
- A partial replication of the studies found that no participants actually gave in to the fourth and final prod, the only one that actually constituted a command. Analysis of Milgram’s transcripts similarly suggested that the experimenter prompts that were most like a command were rarely obeyed. A modern analogue of Milgram’s paradigm found that order-like prompts were ineffective compared with appeals to science, supporting the idea that people are not blindly obedient to authority but believe they are contributing to a worthy cause.
- Milgram failed to fully debrief his participants immediately after they’d participated.
- In an unpublished version of his paradigm, Milgram recruited pairs of people who knew each other to play the role of teacher and learner. In this case, disobedience rose to 85 per cent.
- Many participants were sceptical about the reality of the supposed set-up. Restricting analysis to only those who truly believed the situation was real, disobedience rose to around 66 per cent.
But now there is a new – successful but again partial- replication of the famous experiment, the research appears in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Still, one could ask again if some of the criticisms aren’t still valid also for the new replication – they do imho.
From the press release:
“Our objective was to examine how high a level of obedience we would encounter among residents of Poland,” write the authors. “It should be emphasized that tests in the Milgram paradigm have never been conducted in Central Europe. The unique history of the countries in the region made the issue of obedience towards authority seem exceptionally interesting to us.”
For those unfamiliar with the Milgram experiment, it tested people’s willingness to deliverer electric shocks to another person when encouraged by an experimenter. While no shocks were actually delivered in any of the experiments, the participants believed them to be real. The Milgram experiments demonstrated that under certain conditions of pressure from authority, people are willing to carry out commands even when it may harm someone else.
“Upon learning about Milgram’s experiments, a vast majority of people claim that ‘I would never behave in such a manner,’ says Tomasz Grzyb, a social psychologist involved in the research. “Our study has, yet again, illustrated the tremendous power of the situation the subjects are confronted with and how easily they can agree to things which they find unpleasant.”
While ethical considerations prevented a full replication of the experiments, researchers created a similar set-up with lower “shock” levels to test the level of obedience of participants.
The researchers recruited 80 participants (40 men and 40 women), with an age range from 18 to 69, for the study. Participants had up to 10 buttons to press, each a higher “shock” level. The results show that the level of participants’ obedience towards instructions is similarly high to that of the original Milgram studies.
They found that 90% of the people were willing to go to the highest level in the experiment. In terms of differences between peoples willingness to deliver shock to a man versus a woman, “It is worth remarking,” write the authors, “that although the number of people refusing to carry out the commands of the experimenter was three times greater when the student [the person receiving the “shock”] was a woman, the small sample size does not allow us to draw strong conclusions.”
In terms of how society has changed, Grzyb notes, “half a century after Milgram’s original research into obedience to authority, a striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual.”
Abstract of the study:
In spite of the over 50 years which have passed since the original experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram on obedience, these experiments are still considered a turning point in our thinking about the role of the situation in human behavior. While ethical considerations prevent a full replication of the experiments from being prepared, a certain picture of the level of obedience of participants can be drawn using the procedure proposed by Burger. In our experiment, we have expanded it by controlling for the sex of participants and of the learner. The results achieved show a level of participants’ obedience toward instructions similarly high to that of the original Milgram studies. Results regarding the influence of the sex of participants and of the “learner,” as well as of personality characteristics, do not allow us to unequivocally accept or reject the hypotheses offered.