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The Milgram study

Ask any social psychologist what their favorite experiment is, and the Milgram obedience study is bound to come up—repeatedly. If I ranked my favorite studies, it would definitely be in the top 5. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve learned about it or taught undergrads about it. Every time, I feel like I come away with a new way to think about the findings.

The other day I was listening to Radiolab’s episode “The Bad Show,”which is about why people do bad things. Not surprisingly, they discuss the Milgram study.

The shock panel (top), and the Learner being connected to the electric shock machine by the Teacher and experimenter.

In the original 1961 Milgram study, participants were told the experiment was about the effect of punishment on learning. When they came in, they were introduced to another participant, who was a confederate (a member of the research team, pretending to be a participant). The two men were “randomly assigned” to be either the Teacher or the Learner (the confederate was always the Learner). As the Teacher, the participant read a list of word pairs for the Learner to memorize. Then he presented one word of the pair and asked the Learner to give the second half of the pair. If the Learner’s answer was incorrect, the Teacher was instructed to give electric shocks, which increased in strength with each incorrect answer. The Learner yelled that he wanted to quit, yelled that he had a heart condition, and screamed in pain. At a certain shock level, he stopped responding at all. Despite this, 65% of participants continued shocking the Learner up to the maximum of 450 volts (labeled “XXX”).

To listen to the Radiolab segment, click the audio player below. The Milgram segment starts 10 minutes in and goes to about the 26-minute mark.

In this segment, they discuss the 4 scripted prods the experimenters said when the participants expressed concern or a desire to stop. In order, they were:

  1. “Please continue.”
  2. “The experiment requires that you continue.”
  3. “It’s absolutely essential that you continue.”
  4. “You have no other choice, Teacher. You must continue.”

Here’s what I didn’t know before listening to this episode: Any time the experimenter used the 4th prod, the participant refused to continue. The 4th prod—the only direct order—was never effective at eliciting obedience. In the segment, they explain that the participants signed up for the study because they believed they were doing something important. They wanted to be good participants. While the Milgram study is used as evidence of “humanity’s latent capacity for evil,” it’s more about the power of persuasion.

Free will (or the illusion of free will) is a fundamental human need. According to self-determination theory, all humans share three psychological needs: autonomy (free will), competence, and psychological relatedness. We all need to feel that we can make our own choices, that we are doing well in our environment, and that we are connected to other people. When Milgram’s participants were ordered to continue, they felt stripped of their free will. By refusing to continue, they regained a sense of autonomy (see also: reactance theory). As long as participants felt autonomous, competent, and connected (perhaps to the experimenter), they were willing to continue administering the shocks. And although we may not realize it, about 65% of us would do the same thing.

For a little more background on the study, you can watch the original Milgram video below.

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