On the Milgram Experiment

I’m trying a new experiment as a librarian this semester: attending a class as an embedded librarian. The thought is that by knowing exactly what a class is doing and learning, I can better help those students and the instructor with their research. It’s not something that I see myself doing multiple times for the same class, but so far, I think it might be very helpful to me (and to them) to do one class at a time, each semester. We’ll see how it plays out.

The class I’m taking is Intro to Psychology, and judging from the two sessions I’ve already attended, I think my biggest hang up is going to be that I just want to talk about so many of the things I’m learning, and I don’t have anyone to really get into them with. (As a librarian, I’m trying to keep my actual comments in class to a minimum, which–if you’ve attended a class with me–isn’t the easiest thing for me to do.)

However, I have this thing called a “blog.” And so my gut says you’re going to be hearing more about my thoughts on psychology for the next few months . . .

The focus of the last two classes has been on the Milgram Experiment. I assume many of you are familiar with it: two people are brought into a lab and told one will be a “teacher” and one will be a “learner.” The learner is taken to a different room, where they’re hooked up to a device that administers electric shocks. The teacher is in the first room, at the device that gives out those shocks. Every time the learner gets a question wrong on the material that’s being studied, the teacher gives the a shock. The shocks go up in intensity each time, capping off at 450 volts, which is marked on the machine with an XXX. To begin with, the teacher is given a taste of what the shocks feel like before it begins–about 100 volts.

The study was focused to see how far someone would go when they’re being told by an authority figure to do something. In reality, the “learner” was in on the study. No shocks were really given. But the “teacher” heard the learner yelp in pain, then complain loudly, then demand to be done as the shocks increased. Ultimately the learner went silent for unknown reasons, but the teacher was told to continue.

The expectation was that very few people would actually go much above 150 volts, choosing to defy authority rather than inflict pain. In reality, 2/3 of the teachers went all the way to 450 volts.

It’s an ethical minefield, obviously, but I’m not so focused on the ethics today as I am on the concepts around the study.

  • It’s easy to say to yourself, after having seen the study and knowing the results, that you would defy authority if you were placed in a similar situation. I would love to design a study that tested exactly that. Instruct people about the study, and then later on test them to see if they really would resist authority. Getting a pool of test subjects would be easy: every single intro to psych student probably hears about this study. Have them find out about it at the beginning of the semester, and then wait to do the study sometime in the middle of the semester, so it’s not too obviously connected. The big question is how you could design the study in a way that wouldn’t be too mentally hurtful to the students. My guess is that far more students would continue to obey authority, even knowing the results of this study. I really want to know, though. It’s so easy to learn about a study like this and think to yourself, “That would never be me.” But people are people, and you wouldn’t really know until you’re placed in a position that actually tests that.
  • We talked about the characteristics of the people who obeyed authority and who refused to obey. Things like income, gender, personality type, and religious affiliation didn’t seem to have any real impact on that one way or the other, and that didn’t really surprise me. In my experience, people are people. We might like to think of them in categories, but as soon as you’re dealing with an individual, all those categories often go out the window. (I’m looking forward to learning about studies where a person’s age, gender, income, etc. accurately predicts how they’re going to behave in a situation.) To me, knowing that those categories didn’t impact one’s obedience to authority simply backs up my opinion that stereotyping someone based on those characteristics is flawed. I would have liked to see a deeper study that looked at other factors: a person’s experience with authority previously, how religious a person is (rather than simply what religion they are), or their previous experience with electric shocks, for example.
  • We also went over the strategies people used to resist authority. How the ones who did managed to do it. I really wonder if knowing those strategies has an impact, however. When you’re actually in a position where you’re being told by an authority to do something you normally wouldn’t do, does it help to know in the back of your head some approaches to defy it? My gut says it wouldn’t, but my gut is often wrong . . .
  • On the lines of the ethics of the experiment, I thought about how willing so many people seem to be these days to enter a reality show that has absolutely horrible ethics. The best case I can think of is Space Cadets, the British show that duped a group of people into thinking they were going to space, only to let them know at the end that it was all a big joke to make them look like idiots. (Though of course they didn’t quite phrase it like that . . .) So the big question I have is if researchers could use a reality show to give accurate results somehow. The problem, of course, is that the best way to do this would be to have researchers be in on the creation of the show from the beginning, and as soon as you’ve done that, you’ve basically thrown ethics out the window. So what we really need is for some unethical Hollywood type to design a show that would give good results, and then do it anyway. I’m sure there’d be no lack of volunteers . . .

Anyway, it’s been an interesting couple of classes, and I’m really excited to see what comes next. If you want to know more about the Milgram Experiment, you can watch The Experimenter on Amazon Prime. (Or you can sign up for intro to psychology.)


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