Dec 19 2008

Milgram’s Famous Studies Finally Replicated

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Comments: 22

In the 1960s and 70s Stanley Milgram performed a series of now famous obedience studies. The most famous of which, experiment 5, involved a subject being asked to deliver shocks to a confederate (someone who was in on the experiment) in what they were told was a learning experiment. Surprisingly, 65% of subjects continued to deliver shocks all the way to the end, even over the increasingly vehement protests and even medical complaints of the confederate. Prior to Milgram most people, and even psychiatrists, did not predict such an outcome. Almost no one thinks they personaly would behave like the subjects in experiment 5, but apparently 65% of us are wrong. These experiments stand as a dramatic demonstration of the power of authority and other situational factors in human behavior.

Milgram’s experiments, however, have been controversial. There is always, of course, controversy over exactly how to interpret social psychology experiments. Human behavior is extremely complex, and so there are always numerous variables to consider when interpreting such studies. But even more controversial than the interpretation are the ethical considerations raised by the study. Specifically, the subjects were exposed to significant short term stress during the study. Ethical guidelines since Milgram have made it impossible for anyone to replicate his studies over the last 30 years, which means there is no way to end the controversy over interpretation.

However, researcher Jerry M. Burger has now published a fairly decent replication of the famous experiment 5, staying within current ethical guidelines. The major difference in his study design is this: In the Milgram studies, which involved increasing the voltage each time the confederate gave a wrong answer or refused to answer, most of the participants paused at the 150 volt level, which was when the confederate first gave an audible cry of pain. However, 79% of those who gave the fake 150 volt shock went all the way to the end of the experiment, giving the maximum 450 volt shock three times. Burger therefore reasoned that he could end his replication at the 150 volt shock level and that would be sufficient, and 4 out of 5 subjects who gave that shock went all the way, so their behavior could reasonably be predicted. He also put other ethical controls in place, such as screening subjects more thoroughly and rapidly briefing them on the true nature of the experiment when it was over.

Burger found that 70% of subjects delivered the 150 volt shock, compared to 82.5% for Milgram. This difference was not statistically significant. This would appear to replicate Milgram’s findings. But of course, Burger’s protocol, which is being called “obedience lite” is not an exact replication, so I’m sure the debated will ensue.

There was one difference in Burger’s results. Milgram found that if he modeled disobedience by exposing the subjects to another “subject” (actually a confederate) who refused to proceed, then the subject would be more likely to refuse. Burger did not find this effect, although he used different defiance modeling and so direct comparisons are difficult.

The most widely known interpretation of the Milgram experiments is that it demonstrates the effects of obedience to authority. Subjects proceeded to give more and more intense shocks at the direct prodding of an authority figure – the scientist conducting the experiment. However, there are potentially other factors as well. The gradual increase in demands makes it easier for subjects to proceed. Shocks were allegedly given in 15 volt increments. Giving smaller shocks at the beginning of the experiment may make them more accepting of the overall procedure. Also, it may seem inconsistent to refuse to give a 150 volt shock when you just gave a 135 volt shock.

Also, having limited sources of information in a novel or uncertain situation is also a factor. Other psychological experiments have shown that being uncertain in a situation can be morally paralyzing. Subjects in an unusual situation with an authority figure telling them what to do can be a powerful combination.  And finally, in the experimental situation responsibility was diffuse and not assigned.

Although Burger’s experiment was not an exact replication, he argues that it is a reasonable model and allows exploration of the same psychological phenomena as Milgram studied, and this is reasonable. His findings add to the bottom line interpretation of such experiments – situational factors can have a profound effect on human behavior, and we tend to grossly underestimate the effect of situational factors, especially on ourselves. Understanding this can be a very useful insight. It may help explain events such as the abuses that took place at Abu Graib. Such insight may even help us avoid similar situations in the future.

22 responses so far

22 thoughts on “Milgram’s Famous Studies Finally Replicated”

  1. juga says:

    It would be very interesting to know the effect of religious belief on the outcome, if any. For example, it could be that believers are more accepting of authority so administered shocks more readily. Or it could be that they have an external ethical reference as to what is right and wrong, and stopped sooner.

  2. Very interesting, thanks Steve.

    It’s worth noting that Milgram did a bunch of follow-up work which bolstered the obedience interpretation. Specifically, he found that reducing the appearance of authority reduced compliance. So, for example, when he moved the experiment off the Stanford campus and into a nondescript office-building where the experimenters didn’t wear lab-coats, obedience fell dramatically.

    I’m more than a bit dubious about Burger’s replication – he changed so many variables that comparison is pretty much impossible. I’m particularly skeptical of the argument that it’s reasonable to infer current participants are likely to continue to 450 volts because a high proportion of the participants in the ’60s did.

    It’s certainly still a worthwhile experiment, though. And I, for one, think it would be ethically acceptable to push it a bit further towards Milgram’s procedure.

  3. Oh… and I don’t think the diffused responsibility issue is really a problem. Indeed, Milgram himself wrote:

    The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred, all of the essential features of obedience follow.

    (I.e.: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature…)

  4. cwfong says:

    If you know it’s an experiment, you not only have permission, you have no ultimate responsibility for the consequences, and you also “suspend disbelief” as to appearances and observations in what you have to know is a simulated world. So you have authority, in essence, to play a game where you can do apparent damage with no real world retribution.
    There is no more empathy at work in this situation than in one where you are both watching a show while acting in it at the same time.

  5. daedalus2u says:

    A slight quibble Dr N. You say ” It may help explain events such as the abuses that took place at Abu Graib. Such insight may even help us avoid similar situations in the future.”

    If the “authority” says that something is the thing to do, by what definition is it an “abuse”? If your moral rules are given down from on high by an “authority”, by definition they are moral and not abuses. When Moses ordered the killing of male children and non-virgin women, that was not “abuse” because God told him to do it.

    My understanding is that there were many who knew that the torture and other abuses that the Bush administration authorized were abuses and were illegal and were wrong at the time. It wasn’t a lack of knowledge that led to these abuses.

    Some years ago I saw a movie about the Iraq war and the military training that US soldiers are given now compared to what occurred in times past and apparently it is now very different and very much more effective at turning people into killing machines.

    It made the point that in past wars, most of the killing was done by relatively few soldiers. Most soldiers couldn’t bring themselves to kill other human beings. It talked about how that natural human reluctance to take another human’s life was systematically degraded by the training soldiers now receive. It used an example of a sniper team. Snipers always work in teams, the shooter and the spotter. The spotter picks the target and the shooter does the shooting. The decision and action to kill another human is divided between them.

    The movie had a number of scenes where soldiers were marching in basic training and were chanting to keep cadence. What they were chanting about was committing war crimes, killing civilians.

    The movie made the point that once the barriers to killing other humans were broken down, they did not magically reappear when the soldier returned to civilian life. It seemed quite clear that the military policy was to minimize and ignore any problems such as PTSD. The way that PTSD was dealt with, was “in theater. That is if you were being discharged and thought you might have PTSD, you were kept “in theater” for treatment. If you declared yourself to be “PTSD-free”, then you could return to civilian life immediately.

  6. The A-Team says:

    This is unrelated but I thought you and your readers might like to know that antivaccinationists J.B. Handley and Jenny McCarthy are supposed to be on Larry King tomorrow (12/20). I’m hoping the skeptical community can find a way to get their voice heard via phones or something, because of course Larry wouldn’t conceive of putting on a skeptic to debate these easy targets.

  7. sonic says:

    This is an interesting study.
    You say-

    “His findings add to the bottom line interpretation of such experiments – situational factors can have a profound effect on human behavior, and we tend to grossly underestimate the effect of situational factors, especially on ourselves.”

    This is correct. Noticing that is the first step to overcoming it. Important if we are ever going to get over doing things like going to war on a regular basis.

  8. BA says:

    I’ve had to implement aversive procedures with people in life-threatening situations. To me it was extremely aversive. Gut-wrenching. Having read numerous studies (a form of authority) showing the positive outcomes achieved with these procedures helped to provide the impetus to act despite my misgivings for having to arrange the aversive consequences. I knew that I was helping people avoid a worse outcome and when the person started to show signs of getting to the other side, where we were fostering pro-social behavior I would feel elated. Nonetheless, I’ve worked with others that are not bothered in the same way.

    Being a psychologist and well read in this literature I feel this “authority” construct is clearly an important variable to be aware of (and brilliant research though often villified and sometimes misinterpreted) but a large part of these individual differences in such situations remain unstudied. I would be shocked if religiousity correlated with a decreased likelihood of submitting the whims of authority. I would expect the reverse. Such work is understandably very difficult to justify to an IRB.

  9. cwfong says:

    One thing this research tends to highlight is that ethical or moral behavior depends a lot on anticipated consequences of acts – more perhaps than on internalized values. And the differences between individuals may be in their ability to empathize with victims and thus gauge the extent of the harm that they may be held to account for.

    So finding a way to facilitate empathy between diverse groups in various stages of distress may be as important as hammering home a list of commandments from a source with no immediate or credible threat of earthly consequences for the breaking of same.

  10. CrookedTimber says:

    Interesting. I recently listened to an archived podcast from Point of Inquiry with an interview with Barbara Oakley. She was very dismissive of the Milgram experiments as well as those by Zimbardo. She raised some interesting points such as: People would feel safe at a college campus to participate and would know that injury would not be allowed. (Some comments here suggest that this was tested for in other venues).
    Also that some people were visibly laughing on the video suggesting they did not believe harm was being done.

    I found some of Barbara’s critisims of the history of social psychology to be interesting and some to be unfounded. I still believe there is a decent body of research to support the idea of “group think” or the reluctance of individuals to go against the majority.

  11. ian says:

    These experiments were famously replicated on Danish television in 1978.

    There is a short clip available from the programme at:

    You don’t need to understand danish to understand what’s going on. The woman giving the shocks in this scene reportedly later developed psychological problems as a result of the experiments.

  12. Neuroskeptic says:

    juga: If I recall correctly from Milgram’s book, most of the subjects in Milgram’s experiments were religious (as most Americans were, and still are) and they were pretty obedient.

    But I think Milgram did remark that those rare people who were very disobedient tended to be especially moral throughout life and they often claimed that they behaved in this way religious reasons . I think one of them was a Christian who sheltered Jews in Holland during WW2, or something.

    Of course the question is, was it being very religious that made them very moral, or was it the other way around? Personally I doubt that religious belief per se would have any effect…

  13. Neuroskeptic says:

    crookedtimber: I haven’t listened to her interview but if one of her criticisms is that people would have felt safe on a college campus she really needs to read Milgram’s book. He specifically tested that possibility by hiring a run-down apartment in a non-college town and conducting a series of tests without mentioning his academic affiliation; if I recall, this reduced compliance a bit, but not very much. More fundamentally though it was clear from what people said and how they acted that most of them did believe that it was real.

  14. cwfong says:

    To believe it was real, one would have to believe that those being shocked were there involuntarily, and were helpless to prevent the harm and by inference, to retaliate against the harmer. Yet to believe that, you would in effect have agreed to participate in a criminal enterprise, and had been randomly chosen to do so in the bargain.

    So one might persuade the rational brain to accept the scenario as real, but not the emotional brain, which, somewhat paradoxically, would continue to suspect that it wasn’t. And empathy would be constricted accordingly.

  15. HHC says:

    Religion does not make you resistive to ideology and authority.
    For example, try viewing some of the real footage from Lutheran Nazis who ran the concentration camps. There is fine documentary film evidence of their daily work and Lutheran Bible study at home after returning from their work in the concentration camps.Their anti-semitic bible mentally trained them to be harsh to their prisoners.

    I believe there is psychiatric follow-up on the lives of Milgrams’ subjects. Some suffered disturbances.

  16. daedalus2u says:

    A large fraction of people who are sent to war; which is not dissimilar (the infliction of injury on other humans at the request of an authority) also suffer psychiatric disturbances.

  17. daedalus2u says:

    In the child abuse literature, one of the things that many victims say is that their worst experiences were when their perpetrator enlisted and forced them to abuse another child and become a perpetrator themself.

  18. Neuroskeptic says:

    I’ve got some more thoughts on lesser-known aspects of the Milgram experiments here

  19. Thanks Neuroskeptic – that’s useful.

  20. HHC says:

    The assignment for this reading was to gain a greater understanding of Abu Ghraib based on Milgram’s experiments. His work is just a beginning to understanding why human rights are violated in this manner. The female commander at Abu Ghraib has been quoted as stating that 90%of the detained Arabs were not terrorists. She creates a humanitarian space with these words. The Army soldiers stationed there had training in interrogation techniques, yet it was considered insufficient. They said that superiors that visited their prison said the Army soldiers were not hard enough on their prisoners. They modeled the techniques of the CIA operatives to appear hard enough on their prisoners. Some of these Army soldiers were dishonorably discharged from the Army and/ or served time. Some paid their “dues” and continue to serve. With respect to religion and Army training, one of the torturers was documented as saying he believed in Jesus and when his victim stated he believed in Allah, he proceeded to inflict pain on the Arab man. These soldiers used a flag and a cross to experiment at Abu Ghraib.

  21. galinkar says:

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