Push the button: Milgram rides again

The New York Times has a good article on some recent replications of Milgram’s infamous conformity experiment where he ordered participants to give what they thought were potentially lethal shocks to an actor pretending to scream in pain.

They’re not quite replications, because Milgram’s experiment as it was actually run is considered unethical, but they’re pretty close and the results are frighteningly similar.

There’s also an interesting twist in one of the studies, that suggests people who go on to give the more dangerous shocks think about responsibility differently, assuming they are not responsible because they’re being ‘ordered’.

In the other paper, due out in the journal American Psychologist, a professor at Santa Clara University replicates part of the Milgram studies — stopping at 150 volts, the critical juncture at which the subject cries out to stop — to see whether people today would still obey. Ethics committees bar researchers from pushing subjects through to an imaginary 450 volts, as Milgram did.

The answer was yes. Once again, more than half the participants agreed to proceed with the experiment past the 150-volt mark. Jerry M. Burger, the author, interviewed the participants afterward and found that those who stopped generally believed themselves to be responsible for the shocks, whereas those who kept going tended to hold the experimenter accountable. That is, the Milgram work also demonstrated individual differences in perceptions of accountability — of who’s on the hook for what.

I recommend the picture on Jerry Burger’s webpage. I swear he must of practised that movie villain grin especially for the Milgram replications.

Link to NYT article ‘Would I Pull That Switch?’

3 thoughts on “Push the button: Milgram rides again”

  1. In Gut Feelings, Gerd Gigerenzer analyzes an example of conformity from WWII.
    A group of mildly anti-Nazi, non-anti-semitic Germans were persuaded to murder in cold blood a town of Jews.
    Well, according to Gigerenzer, the commander who was so appalled by the order, allowed dissenters to “step out of line”.
    Group identity trumped individual moral reasoning.
    A more dramatic version of Milgram’s experiment, I cannot imagine.
    I almost want the story to be false.

  2. I wonder how much that might have to do, or the whole topic of responsibility, with the social aspects of choice, how it is manipulated by the group, as showcased by Asch’s Conformity Experiment?
    (New commenter, so no idea if links aren’t allowed, but I first read about Asch’s experiment on Overcoming Bias, and the post above and that clicked together in my mind.)

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