Milgram Experiment Do-Over Reveals Bad News About Human Obedience

The Experimenter

The famous Milgram Experiments of the 1960s were a means to figure out whether Nazi soldiers really murdered millions of people simply because they were told to. As revealed by the disturbing series of tests, in which people willingly delivered electric shocks to their peers when ordered to, the answer is, unfortunately, yes. But the world has been transformed in the past half-century, and so a team of Polish researchers decided to redo the experiments to find out whether humans had changed, too.

The results, just published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, reveal some uncomfortable truths about humankind.

The study, bluntly titled “Would you deliver an electric shock in 2015?” showed that people definitely still would, at least in Poland. Reflecting on the results in a statement, study co-author Tomasz Grzyb said, “Our study has, yet again, illustrated the tremendous power of the situation the subjects are confronted with and how easily they can agree to things which they find unpleasant.”

Grzyb, a social psychologist from SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland, put his research into context by pointing out that “half a century after Milgram’s original research into obedience to authority, a striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual.”

Milgram's experiments were most recently illustrated in the 2015 film 'The Experimenter'starring Peter Sarsgaard.

The Experimenter

In the new experiments, which replicated Milgram’s original experiments as faithfully as possible within ethical constraints, 90 percent of the 80 participants tested were willing to “shock” a fellow person at the highest level available when an authority figure told them to. These results actually exceed Milgram’s observations, which showed that 65 percent were willing to use the maximum voltage on others. The observations showed some slight variations, like participants being three times more likely to refuse if they were shocking a woman, but taking the results together, Grzyb and his team came to the same conclusion as Milgram.

Was it naive of Grzyb and his team to think their experiment might end differently? Milgram concluded that humans will blindly obey human deeds, and this is clearly supported by the new research, but some psychologists have found holes in Milgram’s argument. In 2015, an article in the British Journal of Social Psychology argued that Milgram hadn’t mentioned the protestations of his participants in his study. People certainly didn’t want to administer shocks, and many of them resisted to the point of ending the experiment, wrote Matthew Hollander, then a University of Wisconsin sociology Ph.D. candidate. In Scientific American, noted skeptic Michael Shermer similarly pointed out that in his involvement with Milgram do-overs, it was the resistance of the participants to administer shocks that was most striking.

“Human moral nature includes a propensity to be empathetic, kind, and good to our fellow kin and group members, plus an inclination to be xenophobic, cruel, and evil to tribal others,” Shermer wrote in 2012. “The shock experiments reveal not blind obedience but conflicting moral tendencies that lie deep within.”

Milgram’s conclusions have been used to explain human horrors like the My Lai massacre and torture in Abu Ghraib, and they’ve been invoked recently to frame the ongoing events in the American political sphere. In the Baltimore Sun, University of Maryland surgeon Dr. Jack Mather argued that President Trump’s rise to power has “effectively been a nation-wide Milgram experiment” and expressed concern about the willingness of Americans to uphold his authority, even if it is not “based in reality.” Applying the results to global issues, Northwestern University psychologist Nour Kteily’s recent work has suggested that our willingness to “dehumanize” other people — within a framework of “us versus them” — was reflected in Milgram’s work, too.

There’s no way of knowing how much the people involved in any of these situations protested — we only see the outcome — but it’s encouraging to keep in mind that humans do protest. Giving people enough space and freedom to do so is perhaps the only way we’ll ever turn Milgram’s paradigm on its head.

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