Milgram’s findings reproduced

Stanley Milgram was the Yale psychologist who found that all but a few of the participants in his 1960s experiment inflicted what they believed to be painful punishment on other human beings when ordered to do so by an authority figure. His were seminal studies of social influence and its effects on behaviour.

Some people (I can’t remember who) raise the possibility of methodological flaws round recruitment for these and subsequent studies. Possibly the newspaper ads, emails, posters etc attracted people who were not after all ordinary and unremarkable but in fact the type of people who would cooperate with the investigators in any experiment.

The reporting of these experiments is so gappy and research ethics so evolved that I expected to keep this hope alive for some time to come.

However, today we learn (a year or so after it happened) that Jerry Burger and colleagues  reproduced Milgram’s findings, as reported in the BBC, Time, and Mail. I haven’t read the paper so I don’t know about recruitment and whether or not the participants were aware of Milgram’s work, which is famous. The research ethics criteria for conducting the study involved taking many measures to safeguard the wellbeing of participants – they seem like an exceptionally sane group of people – but what drew them to participate we don’t know.

Setting out to investigate not obedience, as Milgram did, but rather the extent to which virtual characters can substitute for real humans in social situations – Slater and colleagues reproduced Milgram’s findings with a virtual female character as the learner back in 2006 at UCL. They told recruits that they wanted to find out whether discomfort helped the virtual character learn to associate words. Administering electric shocks to the virtual character – seen and heard by two-thirds of the participants and animated, as you can see from the vids, to seem very much present – aroused all sorts of sympathetic physiological responses in the participants, some of whom withdrew from the study and others of whom attempted to interact with her in unscripted ways.

“The Learner had a quite realistic face, with eye movements and facial expressions; she visibly breathed, spoke, and appeared to respond with pain to the ‘electric shocks’. Not only that but she seemed to be aware of the presence of the participant by gazing at him or her, and also of the experimenter – even answering him back at one point (“I don’t want to continue – don’t listen to him!”). Finally, of course, the electric shocks and resulting expressions of discomfort were clearly caused by the actions of the participants.”

There was a fair bit of early withdrawal in this one, but withdrawal wasn’t reliably predicted by displays of empathy, which was interesting. Although they were not studying obedience, the investigators comment:

“We argue that whether participants complied because of ‘obedience to authority’ or politeness, or respect for expertise does not really matter. The fact is that they continued to carry out a task that they found to be unpleasant, when there was no reason for them to do so. Unlike the situation in, for example, the military, there were no real negative consequences that would follow from withdrawal – indeed participants had been advised that they were free to withdraw at any time without giving reasons. Hence, our experiment shows that it is possible to set up a situation in virtual reality where people will comply with requests to follow instructions that appear to cause pain to another entity thus causing discomfort to themselves. Explicitly they know that there is no pain, but it may be that the totality of their perceptions in that situation results in an implicit knowledge that indeed their actions are causing another entity to suffer. This idea fits with the evidence that participants in the VC tended to wait a relatively long time before giving the shocks after the Learner had stopped responding. From the point of view of their explicit knowledge waiting made no sense, but it did make sense at the implicit level.”

It’s also kind of comforting to separate obedience from willingness to enact violence – also based on Milgram’s work, there was a study (sorry, no ref – I learnt about it in a documentary about our collective propensity to fascism) about willingness to give up seats on public transport when the person making the request on behalf of the (perfectly healthy-looking) person who wanted the seat was wearing a uniform. In that case the participants were randomly selected, but they were almost all prepared to give up their seat.

So I suppose we’re always ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” and then, if we’re not satisfied with our own answer, ask the person who is making the request the same question. And if we’re not satisfied with their answer, then we change our behaviour accordingly. And either way, to carry on examining ourselves (without making a sport of it) in case we’re ethically complacent. Which it is very easy to be. Our own conscience – our guiding light – like any lighthouse requires regular, careful cleaning and can go up for sale. But it’s definitely all we have.

It’s interesting about the participants in Slater’s study who refused to even go through the motions. Sometimes conscience is more about ‘us’ – our need to cohere morally to our own satisfaction, and how we interpret this – than about ‘them’.


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