Stanley Milgram. Image: The Chronicle of Higher Education

50 Years On, One of The Most Controversial Psych Experiments Gets The Same Creepy Results

People will still hurt others to obey orders.

FIONA MACDONALD
16 MAR 2017
 

If you've ever studied social science, you've most likely heard about the Milgram experiments - the infamous series of experiments that started in 1961, and concluded that most volunteers would harm another person if an authority figure told them to.

It's become one of the most controversial and best-known psychology experiments of all time - and now, more than 50 years later, a team of researchers in Poland has repeated a modern version, and found that the results still hold true.

 

"Upon learning about Milgram's experiments, a vast majority of people claim that 'I would never behave in such a manner,'" said one of the psychologists, Tomasz Grzyb from the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland.

"Our study has, yet again, illustrated the tremendous power of the situation the subjects are confronted with and how easily they can agree to things which they find unpleasant."

If you're not familiar with the Milgram experiments, they were conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram and started in July 1961, three months after the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann had begun.

Milgram wanted to know: "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?"

To explore this, he set up an experiment where volunteers, under the authority of an experimenter, were asked to deliver electric shocks to a person in a neighbouring room, who they could hear but not see, each time they got an answer wrong.

There were 30 different buttons they could press, each labelled with a voltage. As far as they were aware, the shocks started at a pretty harmless 15 volts, but went all the way up to a dangerous 450 volts, which they were warned would seriously hurt the recipient.

 

What they didn't realise was that the machine didn't do anything except produce a few scary sound and light effects, and the person in the other room was actually a professional actor who was in on the experiment, and had been paid to cry out as though they were in pain.

All of this was unknown to the volunteer, who believed they were actually hurting another person, but was told by the experimenter that they needed to keep going because it was crucial for the experiment.

The most famous variant of Milgram's experiments showed that 65 percent of the 40 volunteers followed orders and went all the way to 450 volts, despite cries of pain and being asked to stop by the person in the other room.

Some people walked out, and many verbally protested against continuing with the experiment, but two-thirds obeyed orders and kept going. 

In the years since, some researchers have argued that Milgram's methodology was sloppy and he manipulated data, but variations of the tests have been repeated all over the world since then, with fairly consistent results.

That said, there's one place the study has never been conducted - Central Europe.

"Our objective was to examine how high a level of obedience we would encounter among residents of Poland," Grzyb and his team write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

"It should be emphasised that tests in the Milgram paradigm have never been conducted in Central Europe. The unique history of the countries in the region made the issue of obedience towards authority seem exceptionally interesting to us."

In this modern version of the experiment, the researchers recruited 80 participants (40 men and 40 women) aged between 18 and 69.

Similar to Milgram's tests, the volunteers were encouraged by an examiner to shock someone in another room with increasing intensity every time they got an answer wrong, and were told it was important to keep going, even as the voltage increased.

But in this updated version there were only 10 buttons with lower shock values, instead of the full 30 buttons of the original study, in an attempt to make the experiment more ethical.

In the end, they found that 90 percent of volunteers followed orders to inflict the highest level of shocks available - very similar to the amount of people in Milgram's experiments who pushed the 10th button.

"Half a century after Milgram's original research into obedience to authority, a striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual," Grzyb concluded.

Before we get too depressed about the state of humanity, it's worth keeping in mind that this is a very small sample size - as were many of Milgram's individual experiments over the years - so it's hard to read too much into what the results could mean for the human population in general.

In fact, the Polish team were hoping to expand on Milgram's initial research and see if there was a difference between men and women, but admitted that their sample size was too small to draw those conclusions.

"We are forced to admit that we did not confirm the hypothesis that the sex of the person being shocked with electricity would influence the level of obedience displayed by participants," the team writes in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

There's also been controversy in recent years over how to interpret Milgram's results.

In 2014, a team went back over the Yale archives and found that, rather than participants feeling distressed by the experiments, they actually felt good about making an important contribution to science.

"This provides new insight into the psychology of oppression and gels with other evidence that perpetrators are generally motivated, not by a desire to do evil, but by a sense that what they are doing is worthy and noble," explained one of the researchers, Alex Haslam from the University of Queensland, at the time.

That doesn't take away from the results that Milgram - and now Grzyb and his team - have obtained over the years, but it provides some small comfort that they don't necessarily indicate something negative about human nature.

The research has been published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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