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Restaging of Milgram shock experiment finds ‘blind’ obedience is a myth

by Lindsay Jolivet
Apr 7 / 15
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People do not mindlessly follow the orders of authority figures, according to a reassessment of one of psychology’s most famous and troubling experiments.

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In the original Milgram experiment, the experimenter (far right) instructs the subject (center) to administer shocks to a learner (left). In fact, the learner was an actor who pretended to experience increasing distress.

Stanley Milgram’s 1961 shock experiments, staged during the trials of Nazi war criminals, asked unwitting participants to deliver increasingly painful electric shocks to a ‘learner’ in another room for incorrectly answering questions. The learner was an actor, but the participants didn’t know, and many of them delivered what they believed might have been fatal shocks. Milgram’s findings suggested that people “just follow orders” — popularizing the idea of a natural obedience to authority.

But ‘blind’ obedience doesn’t exist, says Alexander Haslam (University of Queensland), a senior fellow of the Social Interactions, Identity & Well-Being program. “It just doesn’t stand up against the evidence.” Reassessing Milgram’s findings shows that those who follow orders are identifying with something or someone, such as a leader, an experimenter or the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Haslam and his colleagues have analyzed the archival data from the Milgram study and retested the results using a range of methods. “If you look at Milgram’s videos, even when people conform, it’s clear they’re anguished and vexed by the task,” he says.

In one method, Haslam and Reicher and their colleague Megan Birney asked people to choose between increasingly negative adjectives such as deceitful, treacherous and slovenly to describe images of groups that became more and more pleasant over many trials, beginning with the Ku Klux Klan and ending with a family walking in a park. This avoided the ethical problems of asking people to administer shocks but, like Milgram’s, the task was still stressful and aversive.

The researchers were interested in how the participants would respond to the prods that Milgram used in his own study — one of which was an order, one of which was an appeal to science.

Challenging the idea that people blindly obey orders, they found that when they were ordered to continue, participants were far less likely to do so than when they were told that continuing was essential for the success of the science.

Most recently, Haslam and Stephen Reicher teamed up with the filmmaker and film scholar Kathryn Millard, who wanted to use a method she had devised, called Immersive Digital realism, to restage the Milgram scenario. It is considered too traumatizing, and therefore unethical, to repeat the Milgram experiment exactly. So, to make the experience less stressful, Millard’s method involves employing actors to play a character and then immersing them in the Milgram paradigm without telling them in advance what would happen.

From Millard’s forthcoming film Shock Room, it is apparent that the actors behaved much like the original participants.

For example, all gave shocks greater than 150 volts. But, again, closer inspection of both Milgram’s findings and results from studies using all these different methods (and others), shows that something more nuanced than blind obedience is taking place. For example, when the learner is in the same room as the participant, screaming each time they press the shock button, participants quit the experiment more often and more quickly than when the learner is in a different room, out of earshot. This suggests that participants resist, rather than obey, when they identify with the learner’s plight rather than with the experimenter.

Indeed, it appears that direct orders are not very effective precisely because they undermine identification between participants and the experimenter. “It’s not that people are blind to the consequences of what they’re doing and simply do what they are told. Instead, they are aware of what they are doing but believe that this is justified because it is helping to advance a worthy cause. And that’s a very, very different story,” Haslam says.

The findings have deep societal implications. “Where you see tyranny or genocide, or other forms of oppression around the world, what you find at its core is a very strong sense of shared identification with a set of toxic beliefs,” Haslam says. We are forced to think harder about these shared identities when “just following orders” is no longer an excuse.