How Far Does Your Obedience Go? Milgram’s ‘Shocking’ Experiment Reexamined
How far would you go if someone in a lab coat told you to deliver an electric shock to an unseen person? Researchers in Poland sought out answers to this question when they repeated a midcentury U.S. experiment which asked participants to do just that. They discovered similar results: more often than not, people tend to obey commands—even if it hurts someone else
Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience study, which began in 1961, observed what people would do when asked by an authority figure to perform a task that conflicted with their conscience. Participants assigned to the role of “teacher” would observe a “learner” (who was actually an actor) strapped into a device where they would receive an electric shock.
The teacher was then led into a separate room where the two could still communicate but not see one another, and then instructed to prompt the learner to respond to certain word combinations. If the learner’s answer was incorrect, an authority figure involved in the experiment would instruct the teacher to deliver an electric shock to the learner. The shocks grew in intensity with each incorrect answer. Even though the learner was not actually being shocked, the teacher would hear a pre-recorded, painful reaction to the shock, believing it was real. In some versions of the experiment, the teacher would hear the learner complain of a heart condition.
About 65 percent of “teachers” delivered all of the requested shocks, with the final three gauged at 450 volts. Many protested throughout the study, but the authority figure told them, “The experiment requires that you continue.” At some point in time, the pre-recorded screams—and accompanying bangs on the wall—would stop. Yet, the teachers were still instructed to continue delivering shocks.
The experiments were largely influenced by the trials of WWII war criminals and the public’s desire to understand how a person could obey orders that required them to physically harm another human being. Social psychologists from Poland’s SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities repeated a similar study in 2015, as reported in Science Daily. The study was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
“Our objective was to examine how high a level of obedience we would encounter among residents of Poland,” the study authors said. “It should be emphasized 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.”
The entire premise of the study raised all sorts of ethical dilemmas in the U.S. and Poland’s replication differed slightly, delivering a less intense “shock.” What they found was a surprising 90 percent of participants were willing to follow instructions all the way to the final shock level. “[H]alf a century after Milgram’s original research into obedience to authority, a striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual,” said study psychologist Tomasz Grzyb.
How far do you think you would go?
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