Milgram: so it really can happen?

The Milgram study of obedience is one of the best know studies in psychology following the disturbing findings that came from the study: we would electrocute a complete stranger passed the point that we thought they were dead just because an authority figure had ordered us to. There were many problems with the study (ethics, ethnocentrism, androcentric) but the biggest consideration is the ecological validity of the study.

“[The studies] are often brilliantly controlled and scientifically rigorous but bear as much resemblance to social interaction as an Oxo cube does to a cow. Such studies can be described as impeccable trivia.” [Phil Banyard – Introduction to Psychological Research]

One of the big questions that is always asked of the Milgram study is: would we actually see the kind of unquestioning obedience to authority figures in a more ecologically valid situation. There have been many variations of the Milgram experiment (some psychological and some less than) and some authors have discussed in detail the applications of his findings to today. Even television has jumped on the band wagon with Derren Brown and the ABC network in the US conducting their own replications.

Even with all these replications they are still far too artificial so we have to look to real events to reveal if we are really obedient to authority figures. A recent [horrifying] story does demonstrate that we will do horrendous things just because a perceived authority figure is telling us to.

Two special education students at the controversial Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton were wrongfully delivered dozens of punishing electrical shocks in August based on a prank phone call from a former student posing as a supervisor… School staff contacted state authorities after they realized they had been tricked on Aug. 26 into delivering 77 shocks to one student and 29 shocks to another…

Based on the prankster’s call, one of the students was also wrongfully placed in four-point restraints, limiting mobility of all four limbs. Critics of the Rotenberg school say the case shows that school officials have failed to live up to their public promises to deliver electric shocks only sparingly and with great oversight. [Read full story]

This is very similar to a one of the most well-known studies with regards to nursing: Hofling et al (1966). The aim of the study was to discover if a nurse would intentionally cause harm to a patient if a doctor ordered her to. Hofling met with nurses on 22 different wards to warn them of the dangers of a new drug, Astroten, and its extreme toxicity (Astroten was actually a fictitious drug made up by the researchers and was nothing more than glucose). Later, he asked a doctor whom the nurses knew to be on the staff but had never met, to call each of the wards. The doctor asked that 20mg of Astroten be given to a patient. Despite having been told that the maximum dose for this drug was 10mg, and against hospital policy which clearly stated drugs cannot be prescribed over the phone, 21 out of the 22 nurses administered or attempted to administer the drug. Even the fact that the drug was not on the ward stock list clearing it for use did not prevent these nurses from choosing to follow a ‘doctor’s’ orders.

If such an incident could happen, there can be no legitimate argument that Rotenberg is a decent “treatment” program, which only uses shocks as part of a careful behavioural plan. All institutions which home vulnerable people run the risk of abuse — this risk is elevated exponentially when the program has a philosophy that suggests that pain is helpful to patients and punishment is treatment. Many people have campaigned against the treatment at the center [see google search].

So, to return to Milgram and the problem surrounding his research, it does seem that people will unquestioningly cause physical harm to others if they believe that they are being asked to by an authority figure. A scary thought really.

Hat tip goes to History of Psychology where I first read about the story. I’ve also just stumbled on more excellent commentary on this topic with a great write up over at The Situationist. Well worth a read.

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3 Responses to “Milgram: so it really can happen?”

  1. PsychTeacher January 6, 2008 at 11:20 am #

    This is awful. I can’t believe that this really happened. It really does show how we will do anything that an authority figure tells us to. Good background for the study too.

    Thanks for another excellent post.


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