29 April 2008

obedience and milgram

Obedience is a strange animal. We applaud it when it suits our desires and/or collective interests and we decry it when it flies in the face of what we claim to represent. We praise our troops for their dedication, service, and bravery. We demonize the troops they oppose as fanatics and heartless maniacs. The truth about both groups may lie somewhere in between.

Stay with me here…

Stanley Milgram was a Yale psychologist who ran an experiment to test obedience and morality. His experiment is among the most famous ever conducted on human psychology.

Basically, Milgram tested a person’s willingness to inflict pain on another simply as a product of submission to authority. The experimenter (E) orders the teacher (T), the subject of the experiment, to give what the subject believes are painful electric shocks to a learner (L), who is actually an actor and confederate. The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks, but in reality there were no shocks. Being separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level.

The Experiment:

The role of the experimenter was played by a stern, impassive biology teacher dressed in a technician's coat, and the victim (learner) was played by an Irish-American accountant trained to act for the role. The participant and the learner (supposedly another volunteer, but in reality a confederate of the experimenter) were told by the experimenter that they would be participating in an experiment helping his study of memory and learning in different situations.[1]

Two slips of paper were then presented to the participant and to the actor. The participant was led to believe that one of the slips said "learner" and the other said "teacher," and that he and the actor had been given the slips randomly. In fact, both slips said "teacher," but the actor claimed to have the slip that read "learner," thus guaranteeing that the participant would always be the "teacher." At this point, the "teacher" and "learner" were separated into different rooms where they could communicate but not see each other. In one version of the experiment, the confederate was sure to mention to the participant that he had a heart condition.[1]

The "teacher" was given a 45-volt electric shock from the electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the "learner" would supposedly receive during the experiment. The "teacher" was then given a list of word pairs which he was to teach the learner. The teacher began by reading the list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read the first word of each pair and read four possible answers. The learner would press a button to indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing for each wrong answer. If correct, the teacher would read the next word pair.[1]

The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the confederate was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. After a number of voltage level increases, the actor started to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject. After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, all responses by the learner would cease.[1]

At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.[1]

If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:[1]

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.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.

Despite the increasingly agonizing screams coming from the Learner, the Teacher almost always continued ahead with the shocking. It has been said that the cumulative shocks the average Teacher administered would have killed the Learner three times over.

We learn through Milgram that an individual is quite capable of doing terrible things under the influence of significant authority. Obedience, as the study was named, is never considered a bad thing in society…but should it be? Milgram left us clear implications (explanations?) related to the Holocaust and the more contemporary issues of corporate misdeeds (Enron and friends) and terrorism (and/or our War on Terrorism).

I’ll leave you with Milgram’s own summary of his work, from his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience":

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, 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.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

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