Two years ago, we linked to a post about an ABC news program that claimed to have replicated Stanley Milgram’s controversial experiments from the 1960s and 70s about obedience to authority. The original study tricked unwitting paid study participants into believing that they had administered potentially deadly shocks at the bidding of an experimenter. The cover was a “learning and memory experiment,” allegedly designed to see if administering shocks would improve people’s ability to memorize a list of words.
The shocks progressively escalated from 15 volts (“Slight Shock”) to 450 volts (“Danger: Severe Shock”). Most people continued to give the shocks long after their “victim” (who they believed to be another paid experiment subject but who was actually an actor who never received the shocks) asked to be released from the chair he had been strapped into for the study, and even after he apparently went unconscious from the treatment. It was a striking demonstration of the power of an authoritative voice — even the temporary authority we grant to a stranger wearing a lab coat.
Shortly after Milgram published his results, new ethical guidelines (motivated in part by Milgram’s work) made replicating the study impossible, leaving future generations to wonder if they would respond in the same way as Milgram’s participants.
But funded by ABC, psychologist Jerry Burger felt he had come up with a way to replicate the study without unnecessarily endangering the experiment’s participants. Here’s a clip from the show:
Since the TV show wasn’t a peer-reviewed work, we didn’t comment on the study when it aired, but now Burger’s results have been published in a peer-reviewed journal, so we decided to give it a closer look.
Burger’s work was made possible by the observation that nearly everyone in Milgram’s experiments who continued past the 150-volt level kept on administering the shocks right up to the maximum of 450 volts, when the experiment was stopped. It was at the 150-volt level in Milgram’s studies that the “learner” asked to be released from the experiment. Many of the actual experimental subjects hesitated at this point, but usually they continued, and it seemed that this was the key decision point, when they convinced themselves that they’d persevere in the study no matter what.
To lessen the chance of lasting psychological damage, Burger stopped the experiment once it was clear that this crucial 150-volt decision was made. The actor (who had been hidden from view) immediately returned to the study room and showed that he was unharmed, and the actual experimental subject (who played the role of “Teacher”) was told of the actual purpose of the study.
When I originally read about Burger’s new experiment, one of the first questions that occurred to me was whether the “Teachers” were aware of Milgram’s experiments, which are some of the best-known psychology studies in history. In fact, this had occurred to Burger, and when he recruited participants (via classified ads and flyers posted in public places), he rejected all who had taken more than two college psychology courses or who were undergoing treatment for serious psychiatric disorders. About 30 percent of potential participants were rejected in this way, and another 5 participants were rejected later on when it became clear that they were familiar with Milgram’s work. After a clinical psychologist rejected 47 more people due to possible psychological problems that might be exacerbated by participating in the study, 70 participants remained.
These people were then subjected to nearly the identical procedure Milgram had designed 45 years previously. They were given $50 and told it was theirs to keep regardless of whether they completed the study. They were introduced to the actor who they thought was a fellow participant in the research. Through a rigged “random” drawing, they were assigned the role of “Teacher” and the actor was assigned the role of “Student.”
They watched as the experimenter strapped the Student (a 50-year-old man) into a restraining chair and attached electrodes to his arm. The experimenter explained that the Student was to try to learn a set of 25 word-pairs read to him by the Teacher. He would be subjected to an electric shock every time he gave an incorrect answer. At this point the Student asked how dangerous the shocks were — he was a little concerned because he had a slight heart condition. The experimenter said they were painful but not dangerous.
Then the Teacher was led into a separate room and the door was closed so they could not see the Student. They were shown the “shock generator” which was actually just a computer covered with a box designed to look like Milgram’s original apparatus. The experimenter offered to give a sample 15-volt shock to the Teacher, which nearly every participant agreed to.
Once testing began, the Teacher could hear the Student through an “intercom” which was actually connected directly to the computer and played pre-programmed sounds in response to each “shock” administered by the Teacher. Every time an incorrect answer was given, the experimenter told the Teacher to give a shock, and as the voltage increased, the pained grunt was a little louder than the previous one.
The key moment occurred after the 150-volt shock was given. At this point, the Student said the following:
Ugh. That’s all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me now. Get me out of here, please. My heart’s starting to bother me. I refuse to go on. Let me out.
Most people would like to think that if they were the Teacher, at this point they would also decide to opt out of the study. The experimenter had told them at the outset that they could opt out at any time and keep the $50. Prior to conducting his study, Milgram had interviewed psychiatrists, students, and middle-class adults, asking what level of shock they believed people would administer before refusing to continue. The psychiatrists predicted that most people would not go beyond the 150-volt mark. But of course, most people did continue, and in Milgram’s study, over 60 percent administered the full 450 volts. Over 80 percent made it past the 150-volt mark.
How did Burger’s 2006 participants compare? Seventy percent were willing to continue past the 150-volt mark, prompting the experimenter to halt the study. This result was statistically indistinguishable from Milgram’s.
But maybe they continued so long only because there was no social pressure to quit. In the laboratory, with only an experimenter urging them on, and with shocks only increasing slightly from round to round, why not continue? Perhaps if there was social support for the idea of exiting the study sooner, people would be less likely to comply.
Thirty of Burger’s participants did a slightly different task, this time with two actors. The same actor played the Student, but the second actor played the role of Teacher 1. Teacher 1 was told to administer the shocks, and Teacher 2 (the only real participant) was told to watch Teacher 1 and await further instructions. Teacher 1 administered the shocks up to 90 volts, at which point he refused to continue. The experimenter then told Teacher 2, the real participant, to continue. In this version of the task, 63 percent of participants still continued all the way past 150 volts, when the experiment was stopped. Again, this was indistinguishable from Milgram’s results or Burger’s other participants.
I don’t think Milgram, were he still alive, would be surprised by this result. Milgram repeated his study in a variety of settings and found similar results. Milgram even once staged the study in a dingy, run-down lab in a depressed area of town instead of the staid Yale University campus, with similar results.
What does limit this type of unthinking obedience? Milgram himself offers some guidelines in Obedience to Authority:
- The experimenters’ physical presence has a marked impact on his authority. As cited earlier, obedience dropped off sharply when orders were given by telephone. The experimenter could often induce a disobedient subject to go on by returning to the laboratory.
- Conflicting authority severely paralyzes action. When two experimenters of equal status, both seated at the command desk, gave incompatible orders, no shocks were delivered past the point of their disagreement.
- The rebellious action of others severely undermines authority. In one variation, three teachers (two actors and a real subject) administered a test and shocks. When the two actors disobeyed the experimenter and refused to go beyond a certain shock level, thirty-six of forty subjects joined their disobedient peers and refused as well.
Of course, as Burger’s study shows, the nature of the rebellious action counts. Just one rebel doesn’t incite participants to join the cause. Milgram’s staged “rebellion” was more dramatic than the one in Burger’s study. Perhaps only when rebels outnumber authority figures can disobedience readily spread.
Jerry M. Burger (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64 (1), 1-11 DOI: 10.1037/a0010932