Milgram: Would I Pull That Switch?


One of the most talked about studies, both here on PsychBLOG and throughout popular psychology, is Milgram’s study of obedience.  Here he asked a volunteer sample of men from the New Haven area to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to another person (a confederate).  How many people, both teachers and students alike asked themselves the same question: would I pull that switch?

The results from his study (well what was actually a series of studies) can force one to reflect heavily on the behaviour of the participants in the study, but also a lot closer to home.  A recent article in the New York Times titled ‘Decades Later, Still Asking: Would I Pull That Switch?’ puts a great perspective on the research as a whole.

Consider the psychologist Stanley Milgram’s obedience studiesof the early 1960s that together form one of the darkest mirrors the field has held up to the human face. In a series of about 20 experiments, hundreds of decent, well-intentioned people agreed to deliver what appeared to be increasingly painful electric shocks to another person, as part of what they thought was a learning experiment. The “learner” was in fact an actor, usually seated out of sight in an adjacent room, pretending to be zapped…

… In short, the Milgram experiments may have shown physical, biological differences in moral decision making and obedience, as well as psychological ones. Some people can be as quick on the draw as Doc Holliday when they feel something’s not right. Others need a little time to do the right thing, thank you, and would rather not be considered sadistic prison guards just yet.

It is amazing that a peice of research that is over 50 years old still has such a powerful hold over our understanding of obedience and other social behaviours.

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