Blind Obedience to Authority… Isn’t

Stanley Milgram’s shock experiment is one of the more well known demonstrations of the power of authority.  In the original experiment Milgram had test subjects apply electric shocks in increasing intensity to a participant who was located in another room. Despite cries of pain from the other participant, the test subjects continued to apply electric shocks at the direction of the experimenter.

In reality there were no electric shocks, and the participant in the other room was a confederate working with Milgram.  The experiment demonstrated people’s willingness to obey authority figures.

However recent attempts to recreate the experiment have come up with different results.  According to an article at Scientific American: 1

Contrary to Milgram’s conclusion that people blindly obey authorities to the point of committing evil deeds because we are so susceptible to environmental conditions, I saw in our subjects a great behavioral reluctance and moral disquietude every step of the way.

There are a couple of things to consider:

  • In the original experiment only 65% of test subjects continued issuing shocks until the maximum voltage (450 volts)
  • The second study only tested six subjects
  • You can never truly control every variable in a scientific experiment.  It is quite possible other elements (including the test subject’s background) played a role.

Even with these considerations, the results are definitely interesting.

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