I think this writer's conclusion that the more people who know about these
experiments the better makes a lot of sense. And I, for one, am glad that
they are still being conducted.


December 29, 2008
Editorial Observer
 Four Decades After Milgram, We're Still Willing to Inflict Pain By ADAM

In 1963, Stanley Milgram, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale,
published his infamous experiment on obedience to authority. Its conclusion
was that most ordinary people were willing to administer what they believed
to be painful, even dangerous, electric shocks to innocent people if a man
in a white lab coat told them to.

For the first time in four decades, a researcher has repeated the Milgram
experiment to find out whether, after all we have learned in the last 45
years, Americans are still as willing to inflict pain out of blind

The Milgram experiment was carried out in the shadow of the Holocaust. The
trial of Adolf Eichmann had the world wondering how the Nazis were able to
persuade so many ordinary Germans to participate in the murder of innocents.
Professor Milgram devised a clever way of testing, in a laboratory setting,
man's (and woman's) willingness to do evil.

The participants  ordinary residents of New Haven  were told they were
participating in a study of the effect of punishment on learning. A
"learner" was strapped in a chair in an adjacent room, and electrodes were
attached to the learner's arm. The participant was told to read test
questions, and to administer a shock when the learner gave the wrong answer.

The shocks were not real. But the participants were told they were  and
instructed to increase the voltage with every wrong answer. At 150 volts,
the participant could hear the learner cry in protest, complain of heart
pain, and ask to be released from the study. After 330 volts, the learner
made no noise at all, suggesting he was no longer capable of responding.
Through it all, the scientist in the room kept telling the participant to
ignore the protests  or the unsettling silence  and administer an
increasingly large shock for each wrong answer or non-answer.

The Milgram experiment's startling result  as anyone who has taken a
college psychology course knows  was that ordinary people were willing to
administer a lot of pain to innocent strangers if an authority figure
instructed them to do so. More than 80 percent of participants continued
after administering the 150-volt shock, and 65 percent went all the way up
to 450 volts.

Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University replicated the experiment and has now
published his findings in American Psychologist. He made one slight change
in the protocol, in deference to ethical standards developed since 1963. He
stopped when a participant believed he had administered a 150-volt shock.
(He also screened out people familiar with the original experiment.)

Professor Burger's results were nearly identical to Professor Milgram's.
Seventy percent of his participants administered the 150-volt shock and had
to be stopped. That is less than in the original experiment, but not enough
to be significant.

Much has changed since 1963. The civil rights and antiwar movements taught
Americans to question authority. Institutions that were once accorded great
deference  including the government and the military  are now eyed warily.
Yet it appears that ordinary Americans are about as willing to blindly
follow orders to inflict pain on an innocent stranger as they were four
decades ago.

Professor Burger was not surprised. He believes that the mindset of the
individual participant  including cultural influences  is less important
than the "situational features" that Professor Milgram shrewdly built into
his experiment. These include having the authority figure take
responsibility for the decision to administer the shock, and having the
participant increase the voltage gradually. It is hard to say no to
administering a 195-volt shock when you have just given a 180-volt shock.

The results of both experiments pose a challenge. If this is how most people
behave, how do we prevent more Holocausts, Abu Ghraibs and other examples of
wanton cruelty? Part of the answer, Professor Burger argues, is teaching
people about the experiment so they will know to be on guard against these
tendencies, in themselves and others.
An instructor at West Point contacted Professor Burger to say that she was
teaching her students about his findings. She had the right idea  and the
right audience. The findings of these two experiments should be part of the
basic training for soldiers, police officers, jailers and anyone else whose
position gives them the power to inflict abuse on others.

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
Boston University

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