Milgram’s notorious conformity experiment replicated

The Situationist has a fantastic post on a recent replication of Stanley Milgram’s (in)famous conformity experiment which is usually always described as being ‘too unethical to perform today’.

In Milgram’s original study, participants were asked to give increasingly severe electric shocks to someone supposedly trying to learn a series of word pairs.

In fact, the ‘learner’ was an actor and no shocks were given, but they screamed as if they were in increasing amounts of pain, while the experimenter ordered the participant to increase the voltage.

The experiment tested how far someone would go in giving pain to another human being when being ordered by an authority figure. 65% of participants continued despite indications that the ‘learner’ might be unconscious or dead.

It’s been a hugely influential study, but was thought to be so stressful for the participants, that it has never been replicated in real life and it was assumed it would be impossible to do so.

However, this replication was carefully designed by Prof Jerry Burger to be as close as possible to Milgram’s original study while being modified so it could be fully ethically approved by a research ethics committee (the mark of all good research).

I went to great lengths to recreate Milgram’s procedures (Experiment Five), including such details as the words used in the memory test and the experimenter’s lab coat. But I also made several substantial changes.

First, we stopped the procedures at the 150-volt mark. This is the first time participants heard the learner’s protests through the wall and his demands to be released. When we look at Milgram’s data, we find that this point in the procedure is something of a “point of no return.” Of the participants who continued past 150 volts, 79 percent went all the way to the highest level of the shock generator (450 volts). Knowing how people respond up to this point allowed us to make a reasonable estimate of what they would do if allowed to continue to the end. Stopping the study at this juncture also avoided exposing participants to the intense stress Milgram’s participants often experienced in the subsequent parts of the procedure.

Second, we used a two-step screening process for potential participants to exclude any individuals who might have a negative reaction to the experience. . . . More than 38 percent of the interviewed participants were excluded at this point.

Third, participants were told at least three times (twice in writing) that they could withdraw from the study at any time and still receive their $50 for participation.

Fourth, like Milgram, we administered a sample shock to our participants (with their consent). However, we administered a very mild 15-volt shock rather than the 45-volt shock Milgram gave his participants.

Fifth, we allowed virtually no time to elapse between ending the session and informing participants that the learner had received no shocks. Within a few seconds after ending the study, the learner entered the room to reassure the participant he was fine. Sixth, the experimenter who ran the study also was a clinical psychologist who was instructed to end the session immediately if he saw any signs of excessive stress.

Although each of these safeguards came with a methodological price (e.g., the potential effect of screening out certain individuals, the effect of emphasizing that participants could leave at any time), I wanted to take every reasonable measure to ensure that our participants were treated in a humane and ethical manner.

Interestingly, the study found that levels of obedience were about the same now, as they were in the early 1960s when the original experiment was first run.

This is not the first time that someone has tried to replicate Milgram’s experiment. The BPS Research Digest reported on a virtual reality version of the study (admittedly, not a true replication), the full-text of which is available online.

The Situationist post also includes a embedded video of a TV documentary on the replication and notes some disturbing examples where the experiment has been inadvertently replicated when a prank caller directed staff to give shock to two emotionally disturbed teenagers.

Link to Situationist on Milgram replication (thanks Tom!)
Link to Wikipedia page on Milgram’s original study.

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