Psychology

Stanley Milgram Obedience to Authority Ethics Burger



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Stanley Milgram originally attended Queens College in New York City and earned a degree in Political Science. Later when he applied to the Ph.D. in Psychology program at Harvard he was rejected for not having enough background in the science. After taking some undergraduate courses he was eventually accepted into the program and in 1960, obtained his Ph.D.. While in graduate school Milgram interned as a research assistant to Stanley Asch, and developed a keen interest in conformity and other aspects of social psychology. It is believed that Milgram’s studies with Asch directly influenced the Obedience to Authority experiments which have been shrouded in controversy since their beginnings in 1963.  

The Obedience to Authority experiment was conducted at Yale University in the early sixties, and the ethics of the experiment have been in question since the findings were first published in the October 1963 edition of the “Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology”. In Alfred W. McCoy’s book A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold war to the War on Terror there were allegations made that the experiment was actually funded by the CIA as part of some dramatic mind control ploy. The allegations have been heatedly refuted by Dr. Thomas Blass who wrote Stanley Milgram’s biography The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram and who also maintains Milgram’s official website. 

“In searching for other university research that contributed to the CIA’s evolving torture paradigm, the famed Yale obedience experiments by a young psychologist, Stanley Milgram, seem a likely candidate…(it) raises the possibility that Milgram’s work may well have been part of it’s larger mind control project.” (McCoy, 2006) Whether or not the CIA actually funded Obedience to Authority is highly debatable, as it was common in that time for researcher’s to apply to the Group Psychology Branch of the Office of Naval Research, or ONR, for funding. Although Milgram had applied to ONR he had also sent prelim letters of inquiry to the NSF and NIMH, and was eventually granted funding by NSF after submitting a formal application. 

It seems that the traumatic and very realistic aspects of the experiment itself may be a major contribution to this misconception, and with depictions of social unrest running rampant through the media at the time it is easy to understand how such assumptions could be made. The 60’s were a turbulent time in which society’s faith and trust in their government was waning visibly.

The experiment itself required two participants at a time, a “teacher” and a “learner”. The teacher was required to ask the learner questions and for every incorrect answer the teacher would be required to administer an electric shock, increasing with each incorrect answer by a 15 volt increment. The dial itself registered from 15 volts to 450 volts with clearly marked warning labels about electrocution. A torture device it would seem, if the learner had actually been given the shocks. 

In fact, the learner was a very talented actor being paid for his services in a room separate from the teacher. The effectiveness of the experiment required that the teacher actually believe he was giving the shocks, and the results were horrific. 65% of all teachers would continue to increase the voltage to 450 volts despite the screams and pleading of the (actor) learner, provided that the experimenter (encouraging the teacher) was present in the room. 

The hinging factor, was the presence of the experimenter in the room, presenting themselves as a figure of authority to which the teacher should submit. The white lab coat, charts, and encouragement of the experimenter were the very things that pushed the teacher’s forward with the electric shocks. This is indicative of society’s perception of figures of authority, and the willingness to submit to such authorities. 

The impact of this experiment still resonates today with such references to the experiment as in the 2006 film V for Vendetta. The reference was made by the character Dr. Delia Surridge in a scene where she compares her inhumane work at the Larkhill Concentration camp to the obedience to authority experiment. The character does not mention Milgram’s name, perhaps due to the implicative nature of the movie plot.  

“The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far reaching consequence of submission to authority.” (Milgram, 1974) Although articles about the obedience experiments have been published in several psychology journals since 1963, it wasn’t until 1974 that Milgram wrote his reflections on the results of the experiment in a book titled simply, Obedience to Authority. The book itself, though it is filled with factual information about the experiment results, seems to carry darker connotations and reflect a sadness present in Milgram at the success of his experiment. In the last paragraphs of the books he almost sounded remorseful when saying “This is a fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in the long run gives our species only a modest chance of survival. It is ironic that the virtues of loyalty, discipline and self sacrifice that we value so highly in the individual are the very properties that create destructive organizational engines of war and bind men to malevolent systems of authority.” (Milgram, 1974)

Despite the seemingly gruesome aspects of this experiment and societies failed understanding of it’s importance, it has been cited as a crucial experiment to social psychology. In a book review featured on the back cover of Stanley Milgram’s book Roger Brown states “Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to malevolent authority seemed to me to the most important psychological research done in this generation…” (Brown, 1974)

The study of this drive to please people whom others perceive as an authority figure stems back to the social psychology interest of Stanley Asch and his studies of conformity. 

In 2006 Jerry Burger, a psychologist from Santa Clara University attempted to replicate Milgram’s experiment with some slight changes. Ethic review boards would never allow an identical replication because of the eyebrow raising details of the original experiment. There were three major differences in Burger’s experiment which were pre-participation screening for all participants by a licensed psychologist, informed consent processes, and a maximum delivery of 150 volts. 150 volts is reportedly the point in Milgram’s experiment where the teacher would become visibly shaken and sometimes ask if they should continue. Despite these differences, the results of Burger’s replication were only slightly lower than the original results of Milgram’s experiment. 
The results of Burger’s experiment were published in the January 2009 issue of  “The American Psychologist” and were anticipated greatly by some of the most important minds in psychology. In the article Burger quotes Milgram defending his work with the use of follow up questionnaires in which little long term damage was reported by participants, but nevertheless, no such experiment had been replicated in over three decades until 2006. Burger’s experiment, though informative and useful, could not compare in it’s effectiveness to the 63’ experiments of Milgram. 

It is a question of ethics, and rightly so, for if no one were to ask such questioned there is no shortage of heinous acts that would be carried out for the wrong reasons. However, there are times when “unethical” behavior is crucial to the effectiveness of the experiment, and not only benefits scientific minds, it impacts society at a level to which individuals can attempt to avoid such undesirable behaviors as exposed by the experiments. Milgram brought to light a very dark niche in the nature of humans, and forever changed the face of social psychology. 

Stanley Milgram died in 1984 of a heart attack. Although he conducted several smaller experiments during his career he is best known for the Obedience to Authority experiments that have earned him ongoing notoriety among ethic review boards in the years past and still yet to come.

Blass, T. (2007) Milgram and the CIA-NOT!. Retrieved from http://www.stanleymilgram.com/rebuttal.php
Brown, R. (1974) [Review of Obedience to Authority] Obedience to Authority back cover. Retrieved from www.amazon.com/obedience-authority-Stanley-Milgram/
Burger, J. (2009) Replicating Milgram: Would People Still Obey? American Psychologist Vol. 64 Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/journals/releases/amp641-1.pdf
McCoy, A.W. (2006) Torture. New York: Metropolitan. P.47
Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row Publishers
Walton, N. (2008) Milgram’s Work Replicated in The Research Ethics Blog. Retrieved from www.reasearchethics.ca/blog/2008/12/milgrams-work-replicated.html

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