Replicating a nearly 50-year-old controversial behavioural experiment, a social psychologist has found that people, when urged by an authority figure, can go to the extent of administering painful electric shocks to others.
Jerry M. Burger, PhD, replicated one of the famous obedience experiments of the late Stanley Milgram, PhD.
He found that compliance rates in the replication were only slightly lower than those found by Milgram and there was no difference in the rates of obedience between men and women just like the previous experiment.
"People learning about Milgram's work often wonder whether results would be any different today. Many point to the lessons of the Holocaust and argue that there is greater societal awareness of the dangers of blind obedience. But what I found is the same situational factors that affected obedience in Milgram's experiments still operate today," said Burger.
Stanley Milgram was an assistant professor at Yale University in 1961 when he conducted the first in a series of experiments 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.
An authority figure conducting the experiment prodded the first person, who was assigned the role of "teacher" to continue shocking the other person, who was playing the role of "learner." In reality, both the authority figure and the learner were in on the real intent of the experiment, and the imposing-looking shock generator machine was a fake.
The Milgram experiment revealed that, after hearing the learner's first cries of pain at 150 volts, 82.5 percent of participants continued administering shocks; of those, 79 percent continued to the shock generator's end, at 450 volts.
In Burger's replication, 70 percent of the participants had to be stopped as they continued past 150 volts - a difference that was not statistically significant.
"Nearly four out of five of Milgram's participants who continued after 150 volts went all the way to the end of the shock generator. Because of this pattern, knowing how participants react at the 150-volt juncture allows us to make a reasonable guess about what they would have done if we had continued with the complete procedure," said Burger.
Burger's findings are reported in the January issue of American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association.