The Shocking Truth of Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiments

The title of this post is identical to the title of a Feature article by Gina Perry in the 17 March 2018 issue of the New Scientist. Before discussing the article, Milgram’s research must first be described. The following is taken from a previous healthy memory blog post, “Good vs. Evil:”

Another relevant line of research was conducted earlier by a fellow professor who had grown up in the South Bronx, Stanley Milgram. Milgram was Jewish and wondered how the Germans could commit the atrocities the Nazis committed. And he wondered whether this was a uniquely German affliction. Milgram was at Yale, but he conducted his research at other settings in addition to Yale, Milgram’s experiment was framed as a learning experiment. Two participants arrived at the experiment, although one of the participants was a confidant of the experimenter. There was a pseudo random assignment to the conditions (the experimenter’s confederate was always the student). The student went into an adjacent room. It was set up as a learning experiment, and when the student made a mistake, the other participant, the “teacher,” was told to administer an electric shock. These shocks were (apparently to the trainer) on a panel indicating that the shocks were increasing in intensity. As the trainer progressed up the panel, the “student” indicated increasing amounts of pain. Close to the end, he was shrieking, and at the very end, there was complete silence. Now there were a few “trainers”, perhaps 10% who left at the beginning of the experiment. However, about 65% went all the way to the top. HM has viewed videos of some of these experiments. The trainers were showing obvious signs of distress as they thought they were increasing in intensity, but when the experimenter told them to continue, they continued. In fact, when there were two trainers, the second one being a confederate of the experimenter, 91% of the trainers, influenced by peer pressure, went to the top. Over the many iterations of this experiment there were about 1,000 experimental subjects (the “trainers”). And these research participants could have left the experiment at any time. A more detailed account of this experiment can be found in the Wikipedia.

Dr. Perry, who is a psychologist, has reviewed Milgram’s research materials and accused him of not reporting all his results, and that if all his results had been dutifully reported, the results would not have been so dramatic.

It should be understood that Milgram’s results and his conclusions are extremely important. When he reported his results there were those who said that not only should he not have reported the results, he should not even have done the research.

Milgram was Jewish who was trying to understand how a civilized country like Germany could have committed the holocaust. His going in hypothesis was that this was a character trait specific to Germany. His initial expectations were to demonstrate that such dispositions were not present in Americans. Having proven that, he was going to attempt a replication of the study with Germans. His results amazed him. There was no need to replicate the results in Germany. He found that a large majority of people would be willing to commit similar atrocities in America. Not surprisingly many people do not want to accept results that paint our species in a unfavorable light. Apparently, they would prefer to remain in their ignorance.

Although all research participants were debriefed on the experiment, the research was criticized by some because they thought it gave the majority of the participants an unfavorable opinion of themselves. These criticisms were raised at a time when self-esteem was in vogue. An individual’s self esteem should not be injured, and these results injured people’s self esteem. Arguments were made against competitive sports and activities were arranged where everyone could emerge a winner. However, it was also found that people with high self-esteem were reluctant to participate in new activities where they might fail and injure their self-esteem.

The current view in psychology is that we all should have growth mindsets, where we seek out new activities and subjects to learn. If we fail, we know that we likely will eventually prevail as long as we keep trying. [Enter “growth mindsets” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to learn more about growth mindsets]. High self-esteem discourages growth mindsets.

HM has long thought that the experiences from Milgram’s experiments were valuable to all participants. Even though self-esteem was initially lowered, that lowering of self-esteem was a good experience. The participants were awarded with self-knowledge that might prove to be extremely valuable in the future. They would be much more likely to refuse when told to engage in questionable activity. Moreover, surveys revealed that 84% of the former participants where either very glad or glad that they had participated in the experiment. 15% chose neutral responses. Some correspondence from one of the participants follows:
While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority … To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority’s demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself … I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience …[

Another unfortunate outcome of MIlgram’s experiments was the development of institutional review boards (IRBs). Fortunately, these did not exist when HM was a student. Unfortunately, today they are hindering necessary research. Of course, nothing harmful should be done to research participants. But injuring their self-esteem is beneficial, not detrimental.

Replication is the sine qua non of scientific research, but IRBs have precluded the replication of MIlgram’s important research.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and
healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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One Response to “The Shocking Truth of Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiments”

  1. russvane3 Says:

    Valuable observation about IRBs.

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