Posts Tagged ‘Self-esteem’

The Shocking Truth of Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiments

April 7, 2018

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.

Advertisements

An Early 4th of July Post

June 30, 2013

In the United States the 4th of July is a holiday celebrating its Declaration of Independence. This holiday is certainly warranted, and I am quite pleased with what this declaration started. Unfortunately, the holiday is spoiled for me by those who use it to declare that the United States is the greatest country in the world. First of all, there are facts that would put this claim in dispute. For example, although the United States has, by far, the most expensive medical costs in the world, its health statistics are mediocre or worse. The way the system works is that Americans either receive inadequate medical care, or too much in medical care in the way of over-medication and unnecessary surgery. For a free country, the United States has the highest incarceration rate according to the Wikipedia (716 per 100,000 population). It is possible that this claim is unwarranted as there are no statistics for North Korea.

However, even if the United States were the best country in the world, we Americans should not be overcome with hubris and think of ourselves as living in the best country in the world. Remember, or revisit, the healthymemory blog post “Self-Affirmation Rather than Self-Esteem.” In the 1980s there was a big push in psychology regarding the benefits of self-esteem. Unfortunately, programs boosting self-esteem were found wanting. It has been found that it is self-affirmation rather than self-esteem that is beneficial. Here is the distinction. Self-affirmation means that you have confidence that you can accomplish what needs to be done, that you can improve yourself. You are not afraid of failure, and should you fail you know you can succeed as long as you persist in your efforts. However, if you have high self-esteem, you will likely not perceive the need to improve yourself. Moreover, should you fail, that damages your self-esteem

What pertains to individuals also pertains to countries. Countries that think they are the best or great, are likely not to see the need to improve. Consequently, they will neither improve, nor address their problems. Rather, they are likely to embrace outdated ideologies. However, countries who see a need to improve, even should they already be the best, will pursue efforts to change and grow. In today’s dynamic world, the need to change and grow is more imperative than ever.

When people say they are proud to be an American, I wonder if they remember that pride is one of the seven deadly sins. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” Proverbs 16:18.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

Self-Affirmation Rather Then Self-Esteem

April 28, 2013

This post is largely based on an article by Sharon Begley, “To Love You Is to Know You,” published in the June issue of Mindful magazine. The importance of self-esteem was emphasized in the 1980s. All sorts of benefits were supposed to accrue to those with high self-esteem. Consequently programs were developed to enhance self-esteem. I remember being criticized by a student in her course evaluation for my having damaged her self-esteem. Although I had given the student a solid “A” in the course, she said that her self-esteem had suffered due to her getting several incorrect answers on an exam.

Subsequent research has debunked the benefits of self-esteem. Although programs to build self-esteem might build self-esteem in individuals, this self-esteem does not manifest itself in better performance in school or work, in particular, and in life, in general. Fortunately a new concept has emerged to replace the concept of self-esteem. This new concept is self-affirmation. The simplest way to think of self-affirmation is as self-esteem absent the “I’m wonderful” component. Another way of thinking of self-affirmation is as “mindfulness of the self.” According to the article, “Self-affirmation is the process of reminding yourself of the values and interests that constitute your true or core self.”

Research into self-affirmation has shown that self-affirmation can not only reduce the anxiety and defensiveness that usually arise when we make mistakes, but it can also help us to learn from our mistakes so that we do better the next time. Self-affirmation makes us less defensive when receiving threatening information, be it negative feedback from a supervisor, criticism from a loved one, or poor performance. We become more open to opposing views and more self-controlled.

A study done by the psychologist Lisa Legault provides some insight as to the mechanisms underlying the benefits of self-affirmation. Two groups of college students were provided different instructions. One group performed an exercise to foster self-affirmation; the control group performed an exercise that did not foster self-affirmation. Both groups performed the same simple task: to press a button whenever an “M” appeared on a computer screen for one-tenth of a second. If a “W” appeared, they were to refrain from pushing the button. Brain activity was monitored when they performed this task. The group given the self-affirmation instructions made fewer errors of commission, pressing the button when the “W” appeared (7% vs. 12.4%). The more important result was the difference in brain activity. There is a brain wave that occurs when a mistake is made called error-related negativity (ERN). This ERN is generated by the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in detecting errors, anticipating rewards, and being emotionally aware. It generates the feeling that a mistake was made. It has a strong emotional component and is why we feel bad when we mess up. The more we care, the stronger the ERN that results when we fail or receive criticism. In this study, the self-affirmation group had stronger ERN waves than the control group. It appears that this enhanced response to the task resulted in better performance.

In view of these results, it becomes clear why self-esteem is ineffective. A person with high self-esteem might not care how well he does. He already thinks that he is great. Similarly, a person with high self-esteem is likely to reject criticism because he thinks he is great. The result is that learning does not occur. Now a person with self-affirmation will have among her core beliefs that she is capable of succeeding, but is open to criticism and failure as the means to success. Mistakes will feel more troublesome, but that results in more attention and better learning.