50th anniversary of Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments
(Medical Xpress) -- Stories of torture, corporate greed, fraud, and misconduct are regular features of daily news coverage. For years, psychological scientists have tried to understand why ordinary and decent people are driven to commit such atrocious acts. Much of what we know on this topic can be traced to the work of one man: Stanley Milgram. Fifty years ago, Milgram, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, began a famous and controversial series of experiments to test the boundaries of peoples obedience to authority and determine how far normal people would go in inflicting pain on others just because they were told to.
The experiment involved forty males who each took on the role of a teacher who delivered electric shocks to a learner when they answered a question incorrectly. Though the teacher believed that he was delivering real shocks, the learner was actually part of Milgrams research team and only pretended to be in pain. The learner would implore the teacher to stop the shocks and the teacher would be encouraged to continue despite the learners pleas.
These experiments laid the foundation for understanding why seemingly decent people could be encouraged to do bad things. Thomas Blass, Milgram biographer and a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, says that Milgrams obedience experiments provided a powerful affirmation of one of the main guiding principles of contemporary social psychology: It is not the kind of person we are that determines how we act, but rather the kind of situation we find ourselves in.
What Milgrams obedience studies revealed above all was the sheer power of social pressure. Suddenly it was conceivable that the sorts of psychological forces producing conformity that social scientists had been interested in for some time could not only explain fashions and stock market gyrations, but also some of the 20th centurys most egregious collective behaviors: genocide, the Holocaust, totalitarianism, says Dominic Packer, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Lehigh University.
Milgrams obedience work sparked an examination of the ethics of psychological research on human subjects and has had a profound and lasting effect on how research in most areas within the social and behavioral sciences is conducted, says Jeffry Simpson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota,. He argues that the rise of research studying people in their natural lives and environments is one of the most important legacies of Milgrams work.
Blass states that Milgrams obedience experiments are important because they provide a frame of reference for contemporary real-life instances of extreme, destructive obedience. The fact that recent studies have replicated Milgrams findings demonstrates that Milgram had identified one of the universals or constants of social behavior, spanning time and place.
Now, fifty years later, Milgrams experiments serve as a turning point in the field of social psychology reminding us, as Packer observes, that normal psychological processes working away in all of us can give rise to terrible behaviors if we are not careful.
Check out these videos that explain the experiments: