Psychology Core Studies

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Stanley Milgram's study investigating obedience is one of the most famous and shocking psychological experiments ever conducted.  Not only did the results surprise psychologists, but inspired new research into the subject.

After the Second World War, Milgram often wondered "are German people different from Americans?" He decided to investigate exactly why the Nazis had committed such terrible crimes during the war.  Were German people more obedient by nature?  Were they different in some other way?  This inspired Milgram to conduct a controlled observation to see if ordinary, run-of-the-mill American people would potentially kill someone if told to by an authority figure.

Milgram recruited forty male participants from newspaper advertisements, and offered $4.50 for participation. The study took place in a smart laboratory at Yale University.  The participants were all white, American, and male, aged between 20 and 50, and living in the New Haven area.  All the participants were mentally and physically sound, and they were told that if they withdrew they would still get payment.  They were told that the experiment was about memory. In actual fact, it was about obedience.

Milgram created a 'shock generator' with 30 switches.  Each switch had a label with the amount of electric volts above it, starting with 15V, then going up 15 volts each before reaching 450 volts.  Above 315 volts was "EXTREME INTENSITY SHOCK," and above 450 volts was "XXX": lethal.  The machine wasn't real, but the participants were told that the receiver would get the amount of volts the switch said.

The 'victim' posed as a 47-year-old accountant called Mr. Wallace, who was actually a confederate - an actor working alongside Milgram.  The participants were told that Mr. Wallace was another participant.  Upon arrival the participants were asked to pick their position out of a hat: teacher or learner.  It was always fixed so that the participant would be the teacher.

The experimenter, who was played by one of the professors at the university and wore a white lab coat, entered a small room where the 'shock generator' was. Mr Wallace first told the experimenter and the participant that he had minor heart problems.  The experimenter assured Mr Wallace that the shock generator was not dangerous, and allowed him to be taken into another room.

The participant, as the teacher, was asked to ask Mr. Wallace a series of word puzzles.  If he got the answer wrong, the participant was asked to give him an electric shock, starting at the bottom of the shock generator of 15 volts.  Every time Mr. Wallace answered incorrectly, he was to give him a higher shock, going up on the shock generator every time.

Milgram expected a small percentage of the participants to obey up to 300 volts, which was a dangerous level.  He expected the rest to stop after a less dangerous point and refuse to go on.

After 300 volts, Mr. Wallace would pound on the wall and demand to be let out, shouting about his heart problems.  If the participant asked the experimenter for advice, such as should he go on, the experimenter would give him one of four 'prods':

- Please continue/Please go on
- The experiment requires that you continue
- It is essential that you continue
- You have no other choice.  You must go on.

The experimenter would also insist that he would take all responsibility if anything happened.  If the participant refused after all of these prods, the experiment would be terminated.

After a while, Mr. Wallace would remain silent and not respond to any questions the participant gave him.  If he didn't answer, the participant was asked to give him an electric shock anyway.  If the participants obeyed all the way up to 450 volts, they would be called an obedient participant.  If they refused to go on before the end, they were called a defiant participant.

Milgram found that 100% of the participants went up to 300 volts - an intense shock.  65% went all the way up to 450 volts, which, had it been real, would have killed Mr Wallace.

Such an experiment would be illegal to carry out now as the participants were lied to, tricked and even harmed.  Milgram noted that during the experiment the participants showed obvious signs of psychological stress, including sweating, trembling, stuttering and digging their nails into their skin.  Three of the participants had seizures, and fourteen of the participants had uncontrollable laughing fits.

After the experiment, the participants were all fully debriefed; they were told none of it had been real, and were introduced to Mr. Wallace to prove it.  They all underwent psychological tests to ensure they had not been mentally harmed, and were paid and allowed to leave.

Milgram concluded the experiment with explanations for the participants' behaviour.  Clearly the study showed that it is human nature to obey an authority figure, especially if the authority takes responsibility for their actions.  The participants may have felt obligated to obey as they were paid to take part, and may have feared they would have 'messed up' the experiment if they refused to go on.  The fact that the study was held in a university increased the sense of professionalism and respect.  They may have felt that since they were taking part in important scientific research, they had to obey.  Most significantly of all, they were already 'stuck' in the situation; they had obeyed up to 300 volts, so what gave them the right to back out later?

A similar rationale can be given for the Nazis in World War II.  At first, they were regular soldiers who were trained to fight their enemies.  The actions of the Second World War would have started off small, and gotten bigger and bigger and worse and worse, just like Milgram's participants' actions.  It shows that our behaviour can be situational, not just because were are 'different'.

This shocking experiment has inspired further research; many of which are twists on the original study. 

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