Should we rewrite Psychology History? A New Look at the Milgram Obedience Studies

 

Stanley Milgram’s studies of destructive obedience – the tendency to follow orders resulting in harm to another person – have earned a place in psychology’s Hall of Fame, appearing on all recent psychology A-level specifications and in most, if not all, general undergraduate textbooks. And why not? Milgram’s studies were brilliantly designed, meticulously carried out and produced findings that run counter to common sense and tell us something immensely useful about human nature. Or so we have assumed until now…..

Milgram kept elaborate records of his studies including audio recordings of each participant, transcripts of interviews and follow-up questionnaires. Gina Perry (2012) has investigated this archived material and reached some alarming conclusions about Milgram’s ethics, methods and conclusions.

Ethical issues

Milgram’s peers were quick to identify ethical issues with his procedure. Participants were deceived and distressed, and they were given prompts to continue the procedure that verged on removing their right to withdraw. Milgram successfully defended himself at the time by pointing out that distress was minor and short-lived and that participants were de-hoaxed before leaving the building. His published descriptions of the verbal prompts suggested that only four prompts were given before the participant could withdraw from the procedure.

Perry’s analysis of the archives reveals none of these statements are correct. Many participants left without a debrief and some did not find out about the hoax for several months. It appears that some people were considerably distressed during this time. The experimenter was permitted to use his discretion in the use of verbal prompts and some participants were told 25 times to continue administering shocks in spite of their considerable distress.

Validity of the procedure

The validity of Milgram’s procedure depends on participants believing the shocks were real and on obedience to orders from an authority figure being the major factor underlying their behaviour. Perry has questioned both these assumptions. Looking at participants’ follow-up questionnaires she found that many included comments pointing out that several features of the procedure provided clues suggesting the shocks were not real – for example, learners’ cries were heard though a speaker rather than ‘live.’ It may be that a significant minority of participants continued to give shocks because they didn’t believe they were genuine.

It is also possible that, even where participants were convinced by the hoax, the tendency to obey authority figures was not the main factor underlying participants’ obedience. Perry points out that, when listened to, the experimenter’s actual orders and prompts to continue come across as bullying and coercion, not as authoritative instructions. Also, in the face of the ambiguity of the situation, participants may have placed additional trust in the experimenter. If the procedure actually measured responses to coercion and reliance on third party expertise in the face of uncertainty when they were meant to measure obedience to authority, then the validity is very poor.

Milgram’s conclusions

Milgram concluded that people had a strong tendency to obey figures in positions of legitimate authority, even when doing so violated their moral code and caused them distress. This conclusion is supportable given that 65% of participants in his original study of 40 people obeyed, giving the maximum 450V. However, Perry points out that across Milgram’s 24 studies, most people – 60% – disagreed. So, questions of ethics and experimental validity aside, Perry believes that Milgram’s conclusion is not a sensible one based on his results.

The case for the defence

So should we throw Milgram out with the bathwater? Not necessarily. Although by modern standards Milgram does seem to have compromised on ethics, we should bear in mind that he painstakingly archived all records of the procedure and left them available for scrutiny. If he was trying to deceive us, he did so pretty ineffectively! Also, remember that Milgram was writing before the existence of the kinds of ethical guidelines and review procedures we take for granted now.

As regards the validity of Milgram’s procedure, many subsequent studies using a range of designs have supported the idea that people are surprisingly obedient to destructive orders. This suggests that there is merit to his conclusions even if there were limitations to his procedure. Even if it is a significant minority rather than a majority that obey destructive orders, that is still worrying and well worth knowing about! No doubt the debate will continue – in fact you can join in here: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2013/10/02/the-shocking-truth-of-the-notorious-milgram-obedience-experiments/#.VWRQfLy350w.

References

Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority: an Experimental View. London: Tavistock Publications.

Perry, G. (2012) Behind the Shock Machine: the Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. Brunswick, Victoria: Scribe Publications.

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