In my previous post I described an experiment in which a subject, the Teacher, repeatedly applied a seemingly lethal electric shock to a person, the Learner, who was pleading to be set free. The Teacher administered the shocks only because the Learner failed to properly match a pair of words previously recited from a list. Even though the Teacher was concerned that the shocks may have caused the Learner to suffer a heart attack, the Teacher continued to administer the shocks simply because the Experimenter dispassionately insisted that the experiment must continue.
The experiment was one of a series of 19 similar experiments conducted in the early 1960s by Stanley Milgram and documented in his book Obedience to Authority. The experiment, as you may suspect, really had nothing to do with the effect of negative reinforcement on learning. The experiment had to do with people's response to authority.
The matching word test was but a ruse, a plausible excuse for asking a subject to apply a shock to another person.
The Learner was an actor, always the same actor. He never received any shock. He only acted as if he had. The drawing of lots to determine who would be the Teacher and who would be the Learner was rigged. The Learner / Actor provided the same verbal responses to each of the 40 subjects tested in this particular experiment. The Learner's responses varied only based on the voltage, as explained below:
75 volts: Ugh!
90 volts: Ugh!
105 volts: Ugh! (louder)
120 volts: Ugh! Hey, this really hurts.
135 volts: Ugh!!
150 volts: Ugh!!! Experimenter! 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.
165 volts: Ugh! Let me out! (shouting)
180 volts: Ugh! I can't stand the pain. Let me out of here! (shouting)
195 volts: Ugh! Let me out of here. Let me out of here. My heart's bothering me. Let me out of here. You have no right to keep me here! Let me out! Let me out of here! Let me out. Let me out of here! My heart's bothering me. Let me out! Let me out!
210 volts: Ugh!!! Experimenter! Get me out of here. I've had enough. I won't be in the experiment any more.
225 volts: Ugh!
240 volts: Ugh!
255 volts: Ugh! Get me out of here.
270 volts: (Agonized scream.) Let me out of here. Let me out of here. Let me out of here. Let me out. Do you hear? Let me out of here.
285 volts: (Agonized scream.)
300 volts: (Agonized scream.) I absolutely refuse to answer any more. Get me out of here. You can't hold me here. Get me out. Get me out of here.
315 volts: (Intensely agonized scream.) I told you I refuse to answer. I'm no longer part of this experiment.
330 volts: (Intense and prolonged agonized scream.) Let me out of here. Let me out of here. My heart's bothering me. Let me out, I tell you. (Hysterically) Let me out of here. Let me out of here. You have no right to hold me here. Let me out! Let me out! Let me out of here! Let me out! Let me out!
Beyond 330 volts, the Learner / Actor gave no response. He left the impression he was unconscious, possibly dead.
At the end of the last post, I asked you whether you would have administered the potentially lethal shocks. I suspect you each told yourself that you would never do such a thing. I then asked you if you were sure. I suspect most or all of you were positive you would never do such a thing.
I suggest now that two-thirds of you were wrong. I base my never-to-be-tested prediction based on the results of Milgram's experiments.
As part of his study, Milgram (or his associates) briefed 39 psychiatrists, 31 college students, and 40 middle-class adults about the nature of his experiments. Without revealing the results, he asked the 110 people the maximum level of shock they would have provided. The responses varied only slightly among the groups. The average maximum shock level predicted by the respondents was 135 volts. Only 8 people believed they would have applied more than 200 volts. No one believed they would have applied any shock higher than 300 volts.
Milgram's experiments indicate two-thirds of those people were wrong. Twenty-six of the forty subjects in the specific experiment described applied 450 volts. Milgram described these 26 people as obedient. Under Milgram's rigid standard, even the person that applied 375 volts but refused to apply more was classified as disobedient to authority.
Perhaps I'm applying too much significance to Milgram's experiments. Perhaps his subjects did not represent a reasonable cross section of humanity. Milgram anticipated my concern and addressed the issue in his book.
Moreover, when the experiments were repeated in Princeton, Munich, Rome, South Africa, and Australia, each using somewhat different methods of recruitment and subject populations having characteristics different from those of our subjects, the level of obedience was invariably somewhat higher than found in the investigation reported in this book. Thus Mantell, in Munich, found 85 percent of his subjects obedient.
Since he published his book, his experiments have continued to be replicated. From Wikipedia, I offer the following:
Another partial replication of the Milgram experiment was conducted by Jerry M. Burger in 2006 and broadcast on the Primetime series Basic Instincts. Burger noted that, "current standards for the ethical treatment of participants clearly place Milgram’s studies out of bounds." In 2009 Burger was able to receive approval from the institutional review board by modifying several of the experimental protocols. Burger found obedience rates virtually identical to what Milgram found in 1961–1962, even while meeting current ethical regulations of informing participants. In addition, half the replication participants were female, and their rate of obedience was virtually identical to that of the male participants. Burger also included a condition in which participants first saw another participant refuse to continue. However, participants in this condition obeyed at the same rate as participants in the base condition. [65% obedience]
The experiment was again repeated as part of the BBC documentary How Violent Are You? first shown in May 2009 as part of the long running Horizon series. Of the 12 participants, only 3 refused to continue to the end of the experiment. [75% obedience]
In the 2010 French documentary, Le Jeu de la Mort (The Game of Death), researchers recreated the Milgram experiment with an added critique of reality television by presenting the scenario as a game show pilot. Volunteers were given €40 and told they would not win any money from the game, as this was only a trial. Only 16 of 80 "contestants" (teachers) chose to end the game before delivering the highest voltage punishment. [80% obedience]
Perhaps all of you who now consider whether or not you would have obeyed are among the statistical few who would disobey authority, just as all the children in Lake Wobegon are above average. More likely, most of you simply suffer from the standard human condition known as Illusory Superiority. Once again from Wikipedia:
Illusory superiority is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. This is evident in a variety of areas including intelligence, performance on tasks or tests, and the possession of desirable characteristics or personality traits. It is one of many positive illusions relating to the self, and is a phenomenon studied in social psychology.
Illusory superiority is often referred to as the above average effect. Other terms include superiority bias, leniency error, sense of relative superiority, the primus inter pares effect, and the Lake Wobegon effect (named after Garrison Keillor's fictional town where "all the children are above average").
Hopefully, you find this discussion regarding blind obedience to authority to be both disturbing and humbling.
In my next post, I will attempt to extend this discussion more directly to juries. Comments are now open and welcome.