Would People Obey Today? Part I: Ethics

With the recent announcement of Jerry Berger’s (2009) soon-to-be-published (but available to download here) Replicating Milgram: Would People Still Obey I will be writing a series of articles considering the theories, methods and repercussions of both Berger’s 2009 research and the original that started this journey over 50-years-ago.

  • Part I: Ethics
  • Part II: Was it really a replication?
  • Part III: What does this mean?
  • Part IV: All evil starts with 15 volts?

Milgram’s experiment is infamous in the world of Psychology with every student who has ever taken any intro-to-psychology class being able to recant the horrific stories of participants willing to administer shocks of 450 volts to someone whom they believed was just another participant. Even when they heard protests coming from the ‘learner’ they continued just because of the encouragement of a perceived authority figure.

Back in July I wrote a post that considered the question: would I pull that switch? Now we have a replication of the original Milgram research that tries to answer exactly that question; and the answer seems to be: yes – we are just as willing to pull that switch today as participants were over 50 years ago!

Obedience rates in the 2006 replication were only slightly lower than those Milgram found 45 years earlier. Contrary to expectation, participants who saw a confederate refuse the experimenter’s instructions obeyed as often as those who saw no such model. Men and women did not differ in their rates of obedience, but there was some evidence that individual differences in empathic concern and desire for control affected participants’ responses. Burger, 2009 (in press).

One of the reasons that more replications of Milgram’s research haven’t been conducted are the emmense ethical considerations that must be taken into account; especially with todays current standards of ethical treatment of participants. Berger (2009) justified his replication by taking several additional steps to ensure the welfare of his participants:

  1. A two-step screening process which was designed to ‘filter out’ any participants who may ‘react negatively’ to the experiment;
  2. Participants were told at least three times (twice in writing) that they could withdraw at any time;
  3. Only a 15 volt ‘test shock’ was administered to the participants (which is thought to be ‘very mild’);
  4. There was very little time between the end of the experiment and the debriefing of the participants (whereas Milgram did like to tease and question the participants in his study prior to the ‘ta-da’ moment of truth);
  5. Finally, the research who ran the experiment was a clinical Psychologist who was instructed to end the experiment at any sign of ‘excessive stress’.

Is this enough though? Anyone who has seen video of the original Milgram experiment will testify that the participants there were very-much distressed about the entire event and do the benefits to science actually outweigh conducting this experiment again? Berger does consider this though with a compelling argument in his discussion:

Milgram’s obedience studies have maintained a place in psychology classes and textbooks largely because of their implications for understanding the worst of human behaviors, such as atrocities, massacres, and genocide. Indeed, Milgram frequently drew inferences from his studies to account for the behavior of people who went along with the Holocaust. Although one must be cautious when making the leap from laboratory studies to complex social behaviors such as genocide, understanding the social psychological factors that contribute to people acting in unexpected and unsettling ways is important. Berger, 2009, p10.

Is it important that we conduct research like this? Do these pieces of research really forward our understanding of human behaviour? I’ve been following the commentry of this research in the ‘blog-sphere’ and on many psychological e-lists and opinion is still divided.

If nothing else it makes us ask that question of ourselves once again: would I pull that switch?

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2 Responses to “Would People Obey Today? Part I: Ethics”

  1. Vlad Dolezal February 21, 2009 at 11:20 pm #

    I always wondered if I would obey if I was part of the same experiment.

    I like to think I wouldn’t… but I guess this new research says I probably would, just like anybody else :p

  2. London Counselling September 6, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    Researches don’t give the totality of your being which would as well include human behavior. In this case, the belief of the user will somehow affect his or her view of this subject matter. But I guess, all that we have to believe in is what we see and discover about ourselves to obey on things that comes along.

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