Why We're OK With Hurting Strangers

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A patient is ready to participate in the Milgram experiment.

Replicating Milgram: Would People Still Obey Today?
Jerry M. Burger, PhD.
American Psychological Association

The Gist:
Chances are you underestimate your capacity for cruelty. Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiments in the 1960s and '70s demonstrated that we're conditioned to inflict pain on complete strangers when impelled to do so by an authority figure. Milgram's experiments — linchpins of any freshman psych class — were simple. Volunteer participants were enlisted to help with a study purportedly tracking the effects of punishment on learning. When the "learner" made an error, the volunteer was told to administer an electric shock. Milgram found volunteers were disturbingly willing to follow orders, even as voltage levels increased in intensity and the subject's mild protests escalated into anguished shrieks. (The shocks were fake; both the learner and the authority figure prodding the volunteer were complicit in the experiment.) "The haunting images of participants administering electric shocks and the implications of the findings for understanding seemingly inexplicable events such as the Holocaust and Abu Ghraib have kept the research alive for more than four decades," Burger writes in the January issue of American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association. Have we learned from these atrocities? Burger's replication of one of Milgram's most famous demonstrations yields alarming results.

The participants:
Burger recruited 29 men and 41 women using newspaper ads, online classifieds, and fliers distributed at libraries, farmer's markets, coffee shops and community centers. The participants, whose average age was 43, were predominantly white (54%) and educated (40% held bachelor's degrees, while 20% held a master's). The participants were promised $50 for two 45-minute sessions. Payment was not contingent upon performing the requested functions during the experiment.

The results:
In Burger's experiment, 70% of participants were willing to proceed past the maximum 150-volt jolt level; in the corresponding Milgram experiment, 83% continued. The variance, Burger explains, is not statistically significant.

Highlight reel:
1. On whether gender affects obedience: "I found no evidence for gender differences in obedience. Researchers have speculated that the tendency for women to be more concerned about the learner's plight might be offset by the tendency for women to be less assertive than men who standing up to the experimenter."

2. On how "situational variables" trump empathy: "Participants who were high in empathic concern expressed a reluctance to continue the procedure earlier than did those who were low on this trait. But this early reluctance did not translate into a greater likelihood of refusing to continue. This latter finding fails to support the notion that a lack of empathy explains the high obedience rates in Milgram's studies. Rather, the results again are in line with those who point to the power of situational variables to overcome feelings of reluctance in this situation."

The Lowdown:
Burger's replication of Milgram's famous demonstration was watered down somewhat; a review of his findings by University of California-Davis professor Alan Elms terms the study "Obedience Lite." The electric charges were purposefully subtler and the conditions less stressful. But the takeaway is no less disturbing: humanity's threshold for cruelty is, like everything else, situational. We seem wired to follow orders, even when they're harmful to others. In her chilling portrayal of Nazi middle-manager Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt famously excoriated this impulse as "the banality of evil." Evil is way too strong a word for the conduct of this study's participants, but it seems clear that despite all of humanity's horror shows over the past decades, we aren't getting the message.

The Verdict: Skim