It’s not that I am obsessed with Milgram (see my previous posts); his work just seems to attract a lot of attention – and now a US research team has conducted a replication of the original experiment!. Jerry Burger and his colleagues felt that since this classic study is so often used to explain human obedience to unjust authority (e.g. the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib) there was good reason to see whether the same results would be produced today. In the original experiment (and subsequent replications) once a participant had continued beyond 150 volts they almost invariably continued to the end as if, at this point, an unconscious decision was made to follow the experimenter’s lead rather than being concerned about any harm done to the ‘learner’. Therefore Burger identified 150 volts as a critical point of no return and they designed their experiment so it was stopped after the 150 volt point. In all other respects the procedures were identical to the original and participants were carefully screened to exclude anyone who was psychologically vulnerable or was aware of the original experiments.
The results were just about the same – 70% of the 40 participants who took part were willing to go beyond 150 volts. Participants who indicated a greater desire for control were less likely to obey but empathy levels had little effect on obedience. In another condition the study showed that participants who witnessed another participant (a confederate) who refused to continue did not show any greater disobedience, unlike the original trials.
If you want to read more, look here and here and here (in this last link you can also read about a real life prank call to a children’s home ordering a supervisor to deliver electric shocks, shades of the McDonald’s story).