Thursday, July 16, 2009

Would You? This Is Truly Scary

I treat good books as dear friends and often revisit them in the course of the year. So I reread a lot of Annie Dillard and Alistair MacLean. Recently I revisited another good book and found it as scary as I did when I first read it back in the 70's.

The book is "Obedience To Authority" by Dr. Stanley Milgram. Let me tell you about it. It concerns a series of psychological experiments that took place at Yale University in New Haven, CT back in the 60's.

Three people take part in the experiment: "experimenter", "learner" ("victim") and "teacher" (participant). Only the "teacher" is an actual participant, i.e. unaware about the actual setup, while the "learner" is a confederate of the experimenter. The role of the experimenter was played by a stern, impassive biology teacher dressed in a grey technician's coat, and the victim (learner) was played by a 47 year old Irish-American accountant trained to act for the role. The participant and the learner were told by the experimenter that they would be participating in an experiment helping his study of memory and learning in different situations. The subject was given the title teacher, and the confederate, learner. The participants drew lots to 'determine' their roles. Unknown to them, both slips said "teacher," and the actor claimed to have the slip that read "learner," thus guaranteeing that the participant would always be the "teacher." At this point, the "teacher" and "learner" were separated into different rooms where they could communicate but not see each other. In one version of the experiment, the confederate was sure to mention to the participant that he had a heart condition.

The "teacher" was given an electric shock from the electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the "learner" would supposedly receive during the experiment. The "teacher" was then given a list of word pairs which he was to teach the learner. The teacher began by reading the list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read the first word of each pair and read four possible answers. The learner would press a button to indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. If correct, the teacher would read the next word pair.

The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the confederate was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. After a number of voltage level increases, the actor started to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject. After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, all responses by the learner would cease.

At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.

If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:

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 subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.

Now, before you read the results, stop and think. What percentage of people do you think would go all the way to the last 450 volt shock? Would you?


Before conducting the experiment, Milgram polled fourteen Yale University senior-year psychology majors as to what they thought would be the results. All of the poll respondents believed that only a few (average 1.2%) would be prepared to inflict the maximum voltage. Milgram also informally polled his colleagues and found that they, too, believed very few subjects would progress beyond a very strong shock.

In Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment's final 450-volt shock, though many were very uncomfortable doing so; at some point, every participant paused and questioned the experiment, some said they would refund the money they were paid for participating in the experiment. Only one participant steadfastly refused to administer shocks before the 300-volt level.

The experiment was repeated many times over in various locations, countries etc. The results are truly scary. In all cases the percentage of those willing to go the whole way was in the middle 60's! Wow!!

No comments:

Post a Comment