Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Still obedient 50 years later

In 1963 Stanley Milgram conducted an infamous set of studies on obedience.  Milgram had people who thought they were participating in a learning experiment deliver what they thought were increasing levels of electrical shock to who they thought were fellow participants in the experiment.

Milgram designed a simulated shock generator consisting of a large electronic device with 30 toggle switches labeled with voltage levels starting at 30 volts and increasing by 15-volt intervals up to 450 volts. The learning task involved the learner memorizing connections between lengthy lists of word pairs. The “teacher” would read the list, and then test the learner’s memory for them. The learner was really a confederate, an actor wired up to the fake shock generator and instructed to fail to learn and pretend to experience shock. The basic procedure involved instructing the teacher to give an electric shock each time the learner responded incorrectly, and for each incorrect response, to move up one level of shock on the generator. An authority figure in the guise of an official looking “researcher” in a lab coat was positioned behind a desk in the same room as the teacher, and the learner was positioned out of sight in another room. The learner began to complain and then shout discomfort as the voltage increased and eventually became completely silent after the 300 volt mark. Obedience was measured by how far the teacher would increase the level of shock before refusing to continue. Nobody refused to continue prior to the 300 volt mark (!) and 65% of the participants went the full distance to the 450 volt mark.

In a variety of follow-up studies, Milgram found that the highest level of obedience occurred when the learner and teacher were isolated in different rooms and the learner could not be either seen or heard (93% went to the top of the voltage scale), and when the learner and teacher were in the same room and the teacher was required manually to force the learner’s hand onto a shock plate, the rate of obedience dropped to a mere 30%. He also found that people were far more likely to refuse to obey if they witnessed someone else refuse.

Forty-five years later a psychologist at Santa Clara University conducted a partial replication of Milgram’s study (published in 2009) and found that there has been essentially no change in obedience since Milgram’s time. However—and this is the interesting part—obedience appears now to be unaffected by witnessing someone else refuse to obey. That is, we appear to be just as obedient to authority but less likely to take cues from our fellow slaves.

More proof of the isolating and insulating effects of modern techno-culture?

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