Sunday, September 8, 2013

How Obedient Are You?


In the early 1960s, Yale professor Stanley Milgram conducted a series of famous psychological experiments to measure people’s obedience to authority. A volunteer was instructed by an experimenter to help administer a simple test to a subject in another room. Cards were drawn to determine which of two “volunteers” would play each role, but the cards were rigged such that the actual volunteer was always given the same role each time, and the other role was played by an actor. This gave the volunteers the impression that the role they happened to be assigned was arbitrary.
The test subject (i.e. actor) could be heard but not seen by the volunteer. Whenever a test question was answered incorrectly by the subject-actor, the volunteer was instructed to administer a shock by pressing a button on a control panel. These shocks began at a negligibly low voltage, but with each wrong answer, the shocks were to be increased in 15-volt increments until eventually the final level of 450 volts was reached. The shocks were fake, so no one was physically harmed, but the volunteers didn't know that the shocks were fake.
As these shocks were administered, the subject in the next room (who again could be heard but not seen by the volunteer), would express discomfort in a manner befitting the severity of the shock, including complaining of a heart condition, screaming louder and louder, and banging on the wall. After a certain voltage was passed, the shock-receiver eventually become completely silent (as if to simulate unconsciousness or death). Even after this point, the volunteer was instructed to continue administering shocks.
Milgram’s experiment was intended to test how far the average person would go. At what point would they refuse to give out any more shocks, despite being told by the experimenter to continue?
If you haven’t already heard of this experiment, what would your prediction be? What percentage of people would go all the way to the end?
Before the first experiment was run, senior psychology students polled by Milgram collectively predicted that only 1.2% of the test volunteers would go all the way to 450 volts. They expected that about 99% of people would stop before that point, figuring that most people are not so sadistic. Similar polling of professional psychiatrists yielded a prediction that about 0.1% would go all the way to 450 volts, meaning that 99.9% would stop before that point.
What was the actual result?
In reality, 65% of volunteers made it all the way to the end of the experiment, which required pushing the 450-volt button not just once but three times in a row.
This experiment has been repeated numerous times with highly consistent results, even when the experiment was updated to conform to today’s stricter experimental ethics guidelines. Compliance rates are generally in the 61-66% range, meaning that most people go all the way to administering the full 450 volts.
Milgram himself reported 19 variations on this experiment that he conducted. By tweaking different factors, such as whether a fellow volunteer participant (played by an actor) voiced strong objections and quit, or obeyed until the end, Milgram found that the compliance rate could be tweaked up or down. In one variation he was able to achieve a compliance rate of 92.5%, while in another he was able to get it down to 10%. The effect of peer pressure had a strong influence on the results.
Incidentally, the compliance rate was the same for men and women alike, so the female volunteers were no more or less obedient than the male ones.
Instead of being blindly obedient or downright sadistic, the volunteer would usually object to going further at some point, often around 135 volts. In response to each verbal objection voiced by the volunteer, the experimenter would instruct the volunteer to continue with the following statements:
  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice. You must go on.
If the volunteer objected a fifth time, then the experiment was halted. And of course the experiment would end if the volunteer objected more strongly at any point such as by getting up and walking out of the room. So the experimenter would eventually take no for an answer — but not right away.
There were also a few custom responses that the experimenter would give as replies to specific types of objections. For instance, if the objection was about doing irreparable harm to the subject, the experimenter would assure the volunteer that although the shocks were strong, no permanent tissue damage would occur.
As payment for participating in the experiment, which took about an hour, each volunteer received $4.