CIFAR researcher reinterprets classic psychology experiments on obedienceThursday, July 26, 2012
In his studies, Milgram recruited members of the public to take part in a scientific study supposedly looking at the effects of punishment on learning. Upon turning up at his laboratory, they were assigned the role of ‘teacher’ and were asked to administer shocks, which increased in intensity, to a ‘learner’ each time the learner answered incorrectly on a memory task (the learners were actors, and no shocks were actually delivered). And as it turned out, participants proved willing to deliver lethal shocks to another human being simply because an experimenter asked them to do so.
Milgram and others in the research community claimed that these behaviours were a result of blind obedience to authority, and his paradigm has shaped explanations for a host of real-world abuses including the destructive behavior of Nazi officials during the Holocaust.
Recently, however, the research community, including CIFAR Fellow Alexander Haslam (University of Exeter), has begun to challenge conclusions drawn from the obedience paradigm, suggesting that peoples’ behavior cannot be explained simply by obedience to authority. Instead, evidence suggests that identification with those in leadership roles is a powerful determinant of destructive behaviour. “Identification centres on one’s sense of sharing membership with another person or group of people — seeing them as 'one of us,'” says Dr. Haslam.
Dr. Haslam and his research team were interested in revisiting Milgram’s obedience experiments, to investigate the influence of social identification on the behavior of the participants in the experiments. “The Milgram studies are foundational studies in social psychology that have had massive impact beyond the discipline,” says Dr. Haslam. “The findings are powerful and dramatic, and they speak to phenomena of profound real-world relevance. They are also intriguing — primarily because there isn't a very good explanation for why participants behaved the way they did in Milgram’s studies. Indeed, my colleagues and I have been interested in these studies for over three decades. And it has taken us all this time to come up with a satisfactory analysis.”
Milgram conducted his studies under various experimental conditions, which, for example, varied the proximity of teacher and learner (e.g. the learner was either in the same room or not), how the learner was instructed to react to the shocks, or how the teacher was given instructions or prompted to continue. Dr. Haslam and colleagues noted that participants’ willingness to administer shocks differed across these conditions. So, they recruited experts and novices to estimate how much each experimental variant would encourage them to identify with either the experimenter and the scientific community or the learner and the general community. The team then looked at how these anticipated levels of identification predicted the percentage of participants who actually delivered lethal shocks.
Dr. Haslam and colleagues found that variations in behaviour could not be predicted by a simple process of conformity or obedience. Instead, social identification was an incredibly strong predictor. Participants only enacted the experimenter’s wishes when features of the experimental setting encouraged them to identify with the experimenter and his scientific purpose. The team’s findings were published in the July 2012 edition of Perspectives on Psychological Science.
“In our study, we found that Milgram’s participants would follow orders from the experimenter when they saw the experimenter as ‘one of us,’ in this instance ‘us’ being people who are trying to advance science,” says Dr. Haslam. “The experimenters were also able to exert influence or leadership because they were seen as embodying what 'us' means.” On the other hand, in conditions where a participant was led to identify with the learner, the teacher was much more likely to resist the orders and act independently.
These new findings provide a fresh perspective on studies that have had a profound impact on the field of psychology and shaped everyday explanations of important real-world phenomena. Along with other research that Haslam and his colleagues have conducted, they suggest scientists need to rethink why people engage in destructive behavior. More generally, Haslam says, we need to see destructive behavior as an act of informed followership rather than mindless obedience. “What is really shocking about destructive behavior is not that people don’t know what they are doing. It is that they know what they are doing and believe it to be right.”.