Replicating the Milgram Experiment
June 19, 2008 4:35 PM   Subscribe

The Milgram Experiment Today? "Students commonly assume that, even if Milgram’s famous experiment sheds important light on the power of situation today, were his experiment precisely reproduced today, it would not generate comparable results. To oversimplify the argument behind that claim: The power of white lab coats just ain’t what it used to be. Of course, that assertion has been difficult to challenge given that the option of replicating the Milgram experiment has been presumptively unavailable — indeed, it has been the paradigmatic example of why psychology experiments must be reviewed by institutional review boards ('IRBs'). Who would even attempt to challenge that presumption? The answer: Jerry Burger, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University. With some slight modifications, Burger manage to obtain permission to replicate Milgram’s experiment — and the results may surprise you." [Via MindHacks]
posted by homunculus (60 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Recent related threads: Questioning the banality of evil and Courage to Refuse.
posted by homunculus at 4:37 PM on June 19, 2008


I have generally found that any news report that gets teased with the line "and the results may surprise you" spectacularly fails to surprise me.
posted by Justinian at 4:43 PM on June 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


Spoiler: The surprise is that when ran a similar experiment they got similar results.
posted by aubilenon at 4:43 PM on June 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


and the results may surprise you

No, I saw how the 2004 US elections went.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:47 PM on June 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


Hmm. So back in school I recall studying an index that supposedly measured obedience to authority. It had been administered over many years in a variety of locations, and all indications were that people were becoming increasingly obedient to authority figures and the trappings of authority.

So this surprising result... people have started questioning authority?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:48 PM on June 19, 2008


What I want to know is how they found this many people who have never heard of the Millgram experiment...
posted by Meatbomb at 4:59 PM on June 19, 2008 [11 favorites]


This gives me pause:

"we used a two-step screening process for potential participants to exclude any individuals who might have a negative reaction to the experience. . ."

Doesn't this significantly stack the pool of subjects?
posted by prefpara at 4:59 PM on June 19, 2008


Sorry, I meant to add:

"Fourth, like Milgram, we administered a sample shock to our participants (with their consent). However, we administered a very mild 15-volt shock rather than the 45-volt shock Milgram gave his participants."

This also strikes me as a serious flaw.
posted by prefpara at 5:00 PM on June 19, 2008


This is not surprising. Consider, even here, the number of people protesting that the correct response to extortion with a car boot, against the letter and spirit of the law, is to apologize and pay up.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:05 PM on June 19, 2008 [14 favorites]


You may say so now, prefpara, but we'll see how you feel after I administer this series of shocks. Now hold still...
posted by davejay at 5:05 PM on June 19, 2008


Also, who gets shocked with 15 V? Did they use electrodes and gels, or apply conductors to the tongue? I would work with 15 V all the time and never feel anything.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:07 PM on June 19, 2008


The book Opening Skinner's Box provides an interesting journalistic follow-up to the original experiment.

The author tracked down some of the participants, who were (well, some but not all) profoundly changed by the realisation that had the experiment been real, they would have killed an innocent stranger merely because some guy in a white coat told them to.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:08 PM on June 19, 2008


I propose that we replicate Milgram's experiment by repeatedly shocking a naked and blindfolded Zimbardo with cattle prods while circus music plays in the background. You know, something just as scientific as Zimbardo's prison experiment, with the same careful attention to proper methodology, reproducibility, and the scientific method.
posted by Krrrlson at 5:09 PM on June 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


The blogger Last Psychiatrist had an interesting insight into the fellow who refused to administer the shocks. Apparently his reason for refusing is often misunderstood:

Here's why he refused:


...[the professor] insisted that I continue [giving shocks.] I refused, offered to give him back the five dollars, and told him that I believed the experiment to be really about how far I would go, that the learner was an accomplice, and that I was determined not to continue.


He didn't stop because of moral courage; he stopped because he thought he was being played.
posted by Brian James at 5:10 PM on June 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


This is not surprising. Consider, even here, the number of people protesting that the correct response to extortion with a car boot, against the letter and spirit of the law, is to apologize and pay up.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:05 PM on June 19 [+] [!]


Thread synergy!!!
posted by basicchannel at 5:12 PM on June 19, 2008


The absolute duty of every human to question authority has to be relearned every generation?

Damn the sixties that made me believe change is possible!
posted by francesca too at 5:24 PM on June 19, 2008


if they could just find evidence that milgram was faked, then everything i learned in junior high social studies would have been wrong.

that'd be so cool.
posted by stubby phillips at 5:33 PM on June 19, 2008


A couple of things, without citation I fear, but still reasonable proposition's I hope.

Most importantly, I think the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Tuskege Syphilis study were the two most important flawed-studies that inspired contemporary research oversight/review. Milgram was troubling to the public because of its implications and it has caused IRBs to be cautious about studies that use deception, in some cases they're allowable, particularly if the deception isn't long lived (as milgram's wasn't) and if there really isn't any other way to do the study (as Milgram's wasn't possible any other way). I don't think you could get Milgram through a review board anymore, mostly because people would see through the ruse.

First of all, the Milgram experiments *have* been conducted in the time since the original study ('64?) mostly in other countries with different human subjects standards. The more recent data supports milgrim's conclusion though there is some variation along a cultural variable. The "cross cultural" research doesn't tell us very much about the various cultures, but it does indicate that if the Milgram effect is variable across cultures, it does indicate that it might also not be stable across time, as culture changes.

Secondly, I think the original experiments also included variation in the "prestige" of the "experimenter character" and the setting of the the study, so if the current question is "I think the lab coat and Ph.D. has lost prestige in the last 40-50 years, and therefore the Milgram effect would change" you wouldn't need to run the milgrim experiment to find the answer to the first question, and for the second question, there's probably enough data in the original data set to answer that question. (And this is probably the foremost reason that you wouldn't get the study approved by the IRB).

Lastly, there were followup studies done on the people who participated in the Milgram studies, and all of them had no long-term psychological damage or trauma, and I think in fact they recovered pretty quickly, if someone had a question that *really* needed to run the Milgram protocol, this data could be used, likely, to make the case that the deception wouldn't be detrimental.

Another interesting thing is to look at current data for Asche conformity modality data. While Asche's conformity, and Milgram's compliance speak to different sorts of social behavior, I think they're probably related to similar intra-personal phenomena, and that's a protocol which in modified forms gets through IRBs all the time.
posted by tychoish at 5:33 PM on June 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


When my kids don't listen, I don a white lab coat and tase them.

This study merely reinforces what I already knew.
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 5:40 PM on June 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


I just can't believe any self-respecting college student would obey anybody named "Jerry Burger."
posted by Shepherd at 5:51 PM on June 19, 2008


I propose that we replicate Milgram's experiment by repeatedly shocking a naked and blindfolded Zimbardo with cattle prods while circus music plays in the background.

That sounds good, but I'd also like to perform this experiment on Steny Hoyer
posted by homunculus at 5:54 PM on June 19, 2008


We've been replicating the Milgram Experiment for years. This round is called "The War On Terror."
posted by mullingitover at 5:56 PM on June 19, 2008 [7 favorites]


It sounds to me like they culled everyone who might resist:

The test shocks were too mild to allow for empathy.

They stopped at 150 volts -- well below the maximum. The fact that 79% of the original participants kept going to 450 volts doesn't mean that these people would.

They culled those who would be disturbed -- ie, those who seemed to sympathize with the 'shockee'?

How many people DON'T know about this experiment?
posted by jrochest at 6:00 PM on June 19, 2008


With some slight modifications, Burger manage to obtain permission to replicate Milgram’s experiment — and the results may surprise you.

No, no, no, no, no! The correct sentence was:

"With some slight modifications, Burger managed to obtain permission to replicate Milgram’s experiment — and the results may shock you. Repeatedly."
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:29 PM on June 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


i seriously need a lab coat. ominously stained, pocket protected, some kind of radiation badge...

shit, i've already got the clipboard.
posted by stubby phillips at 6:34 PM on June 19, 2008


Ah, but the results I expected may suprise YOU.
posted by Artw at 7:18 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Ethics" boards disgust me since they got whiny about Milgram.

Disclosures on psych experiments should say 2 things: And that's it. Who really goes into one of these things and thinks they're testing what they say they're testing?

Seriously, complaining that subjects were forced to face their own potential for inhuman acts and their overeagerness to defer to authority figures? Yes, we must never contemplate that. Doing so might stop another holocaust or something.

We have shrinks and "ethicists" to thank for the precious snowflakes that are waterboarding and electroshocking and sleep-depriving Guantánamo detainees this very minute. Great job there guys.
posted by vsync at 7:44 PM on June 19, 2008 [8 favorites]


jrochest: A great many people don't know; I was quite surprised when my wife and I stumbled on a video of the original Milgram experiment at a science museum and my wife - a reasonably well-educated person - had never heard of them. However, her background is in biology and environmental science.


I was not surprised by the results; but I was truly hoping to be. Sadly, they confirm what we see every day with people.
posted by never used baby shoes at 7:49 PM on June 19, 2008


The Milgram experiment came up somehow in my Human/Computer Interaction class this semester, and almost nobody in the class seemed to have heard of it.
posted by jacalata at 7:58 PM on June 19, 2008


I'm surprised that people are surprised that people don't know about the Milgram experiment. Have you ever been on the campus of a liberal arts university? There are people there who don't know the difference between atoms and molecules, or that light and radio waves are the same thing, or that humans did not evolve from apes. Never assume that an American knows anything about science.

The Milgram experiment fascinates and frightens me. I'm the kind of guy who will call bullshit when I smell bullshit, even if you're my CEO, my landlord, or a cop. I won't lie—sometimes it makes my butt pucker. But I do it anyway, because allowing people to abuse their authority is even worse.

Authority serves us, not the other way around; it's our duty to keep it in check.
posted by greenie2600 at 7:58 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


I find it amusing that the psych researchers in these experiments assume that they themselves are perfect method actors - able to completely fool the test participants. I'm sure most participants see through the hammy acting and just play along with what they think is expected of them.
posted by kamelhoecker at 8:28 PM on June 19, 2008


People say that the Miligram experiment is unethical, I think this is a fair point. But part of me thinks, the greatest part of me thinks, fuck it's worth it. Oh what a terrible thing it is to hold up a mirror to a monster! How mean spirited to make people confront the troubling facts of their human nature.

I wish that the Miligram experiment was like Santa Claus, a secret rigorously kept by society where confronting the disappointing truth is a rite of passage into real adulthood. I think it is valuable to let children believe in magic and I think it is valuable to let them discover otherwise and cry because it is their parents generosity rather than a ghosts. I similarly I think it is good for children to assume that they of course are good, and I think it is valuable no matter how traumatic for an adult to learn that goodness requires vigilance. That it is not something to be taken for granted. That the order of operations is not I am good therefore my actions are, but rather the exact opposite.

A dog is called a good boy when it obedient. A boy is called a good boy when it is obedient. But a man? A good man? We live, still, in a universe of children who can never be truly good because they are good boys who believe the pretty lie of their own goodness. Where Edmund Burke said "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" I would say "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is too many good boys and too few good men."
posted by I Foody at 8:46 PM on June 19, 2008 [27 favorites]


greenie2600: I thought psychology did fall under liberal arts?
posted by jacalata at 8:46 PM on June 19, 2008


Wrong, vsync. I do psychology experiments and I test exactly what I say I'm testing. I read journals full of articles describing similar studies.
posted by cogneuro at 8:49 PM on June 19, 2008


Damn kids. Time was you could count on them to follow orders to electrocute people. Now their lazy and listen to terrible loud music. And the hair!
posted by Ironmouth at 10:00 PM on June 19, 2008


sorry "they're lazy and listen to terrible loud music."
posted by Ironmouth at 10:23 PM on June 19, 2008


I think the problem is more that they're loud and they listen to lazy music, but whatever. They should remove themselves from my lawn forthwith, nonetheless.
posted by Grangousier at 10:57 PM on June 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Important Notice:

Any kids trespassing on this lawn do so on the explicit understanding that they voluntarily agree to grant permission to the Home Owner to conduct unlimited psychological experiments using them as subjects.

Signed: The Property Owner
Notarized by: The Crosby Residents Association Ethics Committee.

Now, will you kids get onna my lawn. Please? Pretty please?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:23 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


These results are shocking! Shocking!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:23 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Further down the page on the first link is a story on a "real life instance of the Milgram experiment". It's about the Judge Rotenburg Education Center, which attempts to condition (think Skinner) autistic, retarded, and otherwise difficult children into acceptable behavior. The Center does this by administering electric shocks. Last August a "prank" caller told Rotenburg workers to administer shocks to two kids, aged 16 and 19. The caller claimed to be a staff person who needed these shocks to correct bad behavior from earlier in the day. One kid got 77 shocks, the other received 29. One was later treated for second-degree burns. I found this pretty horrifying (it's probably been on MeFi before -- who could ignore this?) and went to a linked Mother Jones article that tells more about the Rotenburg Center: the State has tried to shut it down but parents of the children inside won't allow it, details of the way "treatment" is carried out, and so on. But two parts of the article really stood out: first, the staff is conditioned as much as the child inmates -- they are afraid not to carry out orders, even, apparently, those that come over the phone in the middle of the night; second, many kids at the Center hate the place (duh!) and, since the caller had an intimate knowledge of the Center and its procedures, I have a tiny suspicion that some former patient was not conditioned as well as might be expected.
posted by CCBC at 11:29 PM on June 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


You can tell a lot about people who have a strong emotional instinct to respond the kinds of experiments done by Milgram and Zimbardo by criticizing the processes as "unscientific".

These people never explain their own credentials in sociology or behavioral psychology, let alone any rational criteria whatsoever for their objections.

It's the kind of ironic-yet-fascinating knee-jerk thought process that Milgram even writes about when describing the Teachers in his experiment, people who would never dare hurt another soul — until they get into the chair and we find them administering shocks.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:38 PM on June 19, 2008


A few people have stated that they feel that we should be doing experiments like this repeatedly, to show us the terrible consequences of following authority unquestioningly. I'm not sure that would have the intended consequences.

Even people who know of the Milgram experiment are not immune from the power of authority. It isn't always going to be someone in a white lab coat asking you to do something terrible. Even "fuck the man" antiauthoritarian types have their own authority figures, and those anti-authorities will, on occasion, ask their followers to do things that are hurtful, destructive or wrong, up to and including acts that cause direct bodily injury another person. And those things get done, even if the participants know they are wrong, because of the social consequences of resisting. Is it any different, just because the uniform has changed?

Another reason I don't think there would be much benefit to doing similar experiments over and over sprung to mind because of this comment:

We have shrinks and "ethicists" to thank for the precious snowflakes that are waterboarding and electroshocking and sleep-depriving Guantánamo detainees this very minute. Great job there guys.


"Shrinks and ethicists" have nothing to do with it, or rather, they do, but not in the way you might think. The military is specifically structured for authoritarian compliance within a consistent hierarchical system. It was before Milgram, it still is, and any subsequent experiments would be more likely to reinforce and refine that structure than to dismantle it. Who do you think is more likely to benefit from the information gleaned from experiments like this; young military recruits fresh out of high school who don't know a Milgram from a pilgrim or people who have a specific interest in getting those kids to do things that would normally be morally and instinctualy abhorrent without resistence or question?
posted by louche mustachio at 11:41 PM on June 19, 2008


You can tell a lot about people who have a strong emotional instinct to respond the kinds of experiments done by Milgram and Zimbardo by criticizing the processes as "unscientific".

These people never explain their own credentials in sociology or behavioral psychology, let alone any rational criteria whatsoever for their objections.


Oooh! This is the first time ever that anybody's suggested that my sociology degree qualifies me to speak as some sort of credentialled expert!

Mustn't waste this golden opportunity! Here goes...*ahem*

I am a fully credentialled sociologist and I find these experiments to be unscientific because, um, because, er - damn, what would Foucault write?!??
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:59 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Check out the Derren Brown version.
This is an entertaining supplement as well.
posted by quadog at 12:39 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]



...[the professor] insisted that I continue [giving shocks.] I refused, offered to give him back the five dollars, and told him that I believed the experiment to be really about how far I would go, that the learner was an accomplice, and that I was determined not to continue.


He didn't stop because of moral courage; he stopped because he thought he was being played.


If I recall correctly, in the original experiment about half the people who stopped thought that they might be being played - and a not insignificant percentage of the people who didn't stop. I guess they decided that if the shocks weren't real, it didn't matter if they played along.
posted by Jeanne at 3:29 AM on June 20, 2008


I like Peter Gabriel songs because someone told me to like them. I think he was wearing a white lab coat.
posted by thanotopsis at 4:42 AM on June 20, 2008


I thought we just reran this experiment with the Telecom industry? Didn't they conclude that they would abuse the American public as long and as much as an authority figure told them to?
And because it was just an experiment, we gave the Telecom's amnesty. Isn't that what happened?
posted by Crash at 4:43 AM on June 20, 2008


I ran this experiment on myself, and despite constantly correctly answering the question "is this test a set-up?" time and time again, I am now a blithering and writching wreck of electrical muscle spasm and pain, all at my own instruction.

Don't try this experiment at home, on your own, friends.
posted by davemee at 5:38 AM on June 20, 2008


or that humans did not evolve from apes

Actually that's one thing I hope many students don't think because it isn't true. Humans didn't evolve from apes. Humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor.

But I see your point.
posted by Green With You at 7:05 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Students commonly assume that, even if Milgram’s famous experiment sheds important light on the power of situation today, were his experiment precisely reproduced today, it would not generate comparable results.

I honestly dont userstand how that is a common belief. Whats so different about humanity today than 50 years ago? Hell, the popularity of President Bush and the 2004 election is pretty much proof that things havent really changed at all, or worse, that people have gotten much more rotten.

Then again, part of being in college is believing that you and your peers are particularly special snowflakes and as such exempt from studies done with "old people from, like, long ago."
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:19 AM on June 20, 2008


You can tell a lot about people who have a strong emotional instinct to respond the kinds of experiments done by Milgram and Zimbardo by criticizing the processes as "unscientific".

My response is not based on emotion whatsoever, and of course the statement that I criticized Milgram's experiment is a blatant lie. In fact, I find Milgram's experiment to be perfectly valid. Zimbardo's experiment, by contrast, is only an experiment in the sense that making a casserole out of whatever is left in the fridge is an experiment.

These people never explain their own credentials in sociology or behavioral psychology, let alone any rational criteria whatsoever for their objections.

It is an equally dishonest suggestion that one needs sociology credentials to point out Zimbardo's experiment for the tripe that it is. Knowledge of the scientific method as applied in sociological experiments is more than sufficient. More specifically, here are some of the more glaring issues:

- The experimental setup was arbitrary and not based on the real-life conditions it was trying to emulate.
- The experimenter was also a participant.
- There was no way to differentiate between genuine behaviour by the participants and stereotypical role-playing that was encouraged by the experimental conditions.
- Observations were subjective and anecdotal.
- The experiment has a low reproducibility.

Milgram's experiment, by contrast, was systematic, much better designed and controlled, and as a result more convincing. Moreover, one could also design a better experiment around the same objectives as Zimbardo's, although ethical concerns would get in the way today. The Stanford experiment, however, is an embarrassment.
posted by Krrrlson at 7:40 AM on June 20, 2008


Green With You: yes, that's exactly what I said.
posted by greenie2600 at 9:08 AM on June 20, 2008


It's easy to miss this, but there's a pre-copyedit White Paper of this study on Dr. Burger's bio page (clicky).

I honestly dont userstand how that is a common belief. Whats so different about humanity today than 50 years ago? Hell, the popularity of President Bush and the 2004 election is pretty much proof that things havent really changed at all, or worse, that people have gotten much more rotten.

That's just it: without considering this study you could rationally make the case that we are more rotten - and yet the results were reproduced.

It sheds an interesting light on the cultural values that we have, and I don't even think it has to do with "rottenness" so much as it has to do with the role of "researcher" and the power that we attribute to a person who is playing that role as well as the power that is attributed to the value of science and progress, and how doing what's best is not always the same thing as preventing the pain or injury of another individual.

This is analogous to how we as a society tolerate throwing away the lives of millions of mice, rats, etc in the Name of Science.
posted by tybeet at 10:06 AM on June 20, 2008



I was actually the first (as far as I can tell) to note the fact that the Rotenberg incident replicated the Milgram study in real life in this post here, which was linked by Mother Jones here (where I wrote the sidebars about the history of the teen abuse industry which went with Jennifer Gonnerman's Rotenberg piece). I currently have a piece on their blog about legislation attempting to stop this kind of child abuse.

I have been covering how teen "tough love" schools replicate the Stanford Prison Experiment every day for a years now-- those who argue that the situation is artificial and doesn't really tell us anything about how real people behave when they are given total power over others just don't know what they are talking about.

In the programs I cover, the teens have to "confront" each other to advance in order to get the "privilege" of going home-- being kind is seen as "enabling" and finding someone's emotional weak spot and 'breaking' them is seen as the most compassionate, helpful thing to do-- also, if you don't do it to others, you never get to go home.

The damage this can do is horrifying-- and the ways that the teens brutalize each other emotionally bring out all the worst aspects of human nature. They do all kinds of cruel physical stuff as well-- most notably punitive restraints that turn into beatings and denying bathroom access till people actually wet and soil themselves-- but the most damaging is the psychological abuse.

And you can see in the Stanford experiment how the guards rapidly converge on forced exercise, meaningless sleep interruptions for "counts," pointless labor, denial of bathroom access, stress positions and humiliating outfits-- the same stuff, though obviously less severe, as at Abu Ghraib.

This stuff is very easy to elicit-- it's less about obedience than it is about conformity and that's why it doesn't require respect for the guy in the white coat, just raw imposition of status and power without any checks.
posted by Maias at 4:24 PM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


tychoish
If you're still reading this thread, do you have any links to or write-ups of those Milgram-like experiments done in other countries? They sound very interesting.
posted by Sangermaine at 5:08 PM on June 20, 2008


maias: I didn't go to the sidebars on the MJ link, thanks for pointing them out. There, you show that the various Tough Love enterprises are descended from Synanon. That should be a tip-off to their toxic nature.
posted by CCBC at 5:15 PM on June 20, 2008


I Foody, do I detect an echo of Auden?
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
W. H. Auden, September 1, 1939, fifth stanza

/poetry derail
posted by eritain at 9:11 PM on June 20, 2008


Decades Later, Still Asking: Would I Pull That Switch?
posted by homunculus at 8:23 PM on July 3, 2008


Impossible Experiments
posted by homunculus at 8:27 PM on July 3, 2008


homunculus: good links, but the NYT beats Psych Today.
posted by CCBC at 11:27 PM on July 3, 2008


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