Messy Science: The Milgram Obedience Experiments

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Science is messy. Psychology is especially messy. Not because psychologists are are lazy or bad scientists, but because people are a lot harder to predict than say, yeast. Yeast won’t change behavior if it watched just watched the finale of Grey’s Anatomy or had a fight with its brother. (Probably.) People, on the other hand are extremely unpredictable. There are just so many factors that will change how someone will behave, and it’s impossible to account for them all. People will respond radically differently depending on how you phrase a question, and the simple fact that you are watching them could change their behavior. For the next few weeks I want to talk about three extremely famous psychology experiments that fall into this camp.

It is hard to communicate the intricacies of science news items because you basically have to have advanced degrees in whatever field you’re researching in order to totally understand it all. These two facts mix like a lighter and hairspray to create an explosion of science being misunderstood by the public. This is what I am trying to avoid. I know I won’t get everything 100% correct, but my goal is to not shy away from the gory science-guts detail. If you see something that I’ve gotten factually wrong, please do let me know.

How Far Will People Go For Obedience?

The first is the Milgram Obedience Experiment, known as the experiment that proved we could have been Nazis. It goes like this: a call goes out into the community of New Haven for men to participate in a study about different teaching and learning methods. The men are randomly split into two groups: “teachers” and “learners”.

The learner is given a list of word pairs and told to memorize them. They are them hooked up to an electric chair. (I bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?) The teacher is brought to another room with thirty electrical switches, from 15 volts (could hardly feel it) all the way to 400 volts (DANGER). Their instructions were to test the student via an intercom system and shock them every time the learner gets one wrong, starting with the lowest voltage and to go up from there. Every time they flipped a switch they could hear the learner screaming in the other room, until eventually they went worryingly silent.

If the teacher expressed that they didn’t want to keep hurting someone, the experimenter in the room with them would go through a progression of commands to keep them going. The experiment ended when either the teacher went through all 30 switches, or refused to keep going and walked out.

Unlike a lot of experiments in the 1960s, no one was actually physically hurt during this study. All of it was staged: the learner was an actor, and the experiment itself was not about learning at all but instead to see how far the participants would go. After the conclusion of WWII, the world was engulfed with the question of how thousands of people could be convinced to commit horrible atrocities against people they did not know. Stanley Milgram was moved by the trial of famed Nazi Adolf Eichmann. He wanted his experiments to test the legitimacy of his popular claim that he was “only following orders.

65% of the participants flipped all thirty switches, which to him showed “the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority.” He concluded that when people submit to the will of others they enter an “agentic state,” which basically means that they become zombies, ready to be given orders.

The Messy Part

Of course the story doesn’t end here, or I wouldn’t be talking about it. What a lot of people don’t know is that he did a total of 24 experiments, not one. The 65% number we know is only from the very first one. It translates into only 26 people who went all the way.

In fact a lot of researchers have expressed concern at different parts of the study, mostly because they don’t feel it is representative of all humanity. They give any reasons, including: many of the participants knew or had strong suspicions that it was a hoax. If they thought no one was actually being hurt, of course they would feel more comfortable flipping the switches. On the other hand, at the beginning of the study, all the participants were told the shocks “would hurt but weren’t truly dangerous”. This is certainly different than those following Nazi orders. And the most compelling– in more than half of the next 23 variations of this study that Milgram did after, 65% or more of the participants rebelled and refused to go on.

In the years after these experiments, Milgram maintained that everyone has the capacity for pure evil. People have used his findings to explain everything from the murder of Kitty Genovese to the abuse at Abu Ghraib. But more and more contemporary psychologists agree that these findings don’t explain away these atrocities at all. The problem is that no one agrees on what they do mean. To me, they show that people and science are more complicated than we like to think they are. I know this isn’t the most satisfying conclusion. But if we want to be scientifically minded we have to accept that sometimes answers are unsatisfactory.

Come back next week for another (hopefully) interesting example of this!

About The Author

Just a girl who has a lot of feelings about planetary science

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