December 19, 2008

Researcher Replicates Milgram’s ‘Shocking’ Experiment

Scientists said on Friday they had replicated the notorious Stanley Milgram experiment from the 60's in which people obediently delivered painful shocks to others if encouraged to do so by authority figures.

Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University in California found that seventy percent of volunteers continued to administer electrical shocks even after faked screams of pain from an actor.

"What we found is validation of the same argument"”if you put people into certain situations, they will act in surprising, and maybe often even disturbing, ways," Burger said.

Burger was replicating an experiment published in 1961 by Yale University professor Stanley Milgram, in which subjects"”thinking they were testing the effect of punishment on learning"”administered what they believed were increasingly powerful electric shocks to another person in a separate room.

When the pretend 150-volt shock was delivered, the actor could be heard screaming in pain, and yet, when asked to, more than eight out of ten volunteers were prepared to give further shocks, even when the "voltage" was gradually increased threefold.

"When you hear the man scream and say, 'let me out, I can't stand it,' that is the point when the real stress that people criticized Milgram for kicked in," Burger said.

Burger used a similar format, although he did not allow the volunteers to carry on beyond 150 volts after they had shown their willingness to do so, suggesting that the distress caused to the original volunteers had been too great.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of the 29 men and 41 women taking part were willing to push the button knowing it would cause pain to another human.

Researchers even brought in a volunteer who knew what was going on and refused to administer shocks beyond 150 volts. Even then, 63 percent of the participants continued administering shocks past 150 volts.

"That was surprising and disappointing," Burger said.

Milgram's techniques have been debated ever since his research was first published. His results sparked newly established ethics codes for psychologists that have effectively prevented any precise replications of Milgram's work.

"No study using procedures similar to Milgram's has been published in more than three decades," according to Burger.

Still, what Burger found was validation of the same argument"”if you put people in certain situations, they will act in surprising and maybe often even disturbing ways.

While Burger said the experiment could be used to partially explain events during World War Two and other atrocities, he wrote: "Although one must be cautious when making the leap from laboratory studies to complex social behaviors such as genocide, understanding the social psychological factors that contribute to people acting in unexpected and unsettling ways is important."

"It's not that these people are simply not good people any more - there is a massive social influence going on," he said.


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