Evaluating Obedience Research

by taratuta

Category: Documents





Evaluating Obedience Research
Chapter 14
Social Psychology
Factors Affecting Obedience
Milgram had not expected so many people to deliver such apparently intense shocks.
Was there something about his procedure that produced this high level of obedience?
To find out, Milgram and other researchers varied the original procedure in a number
of ways. The overall level of obedience to an authority figure was usually quite high, but
the degree of obedience was affected by several aspects of the situation and procedure.
Experimenter Status and Prestige One possibility is that the experimenter’s sta-
PROXIMITY AND OBEDIENCE Milgram’s research showed that close physical proximity to an authority figure is one
of several factors that can enhance obedience to authority (Rada & Rogers, 1973).
This proximity principle is used in the military, where no one is ever far away from
the authority of a higher-ranking person.
tus as a Yale University professor helped produce high levels of obedience in Milgram’s
original experiment (Blass & Schmitt, 2001). To test the effects of status and prestige,
Milgram rented an office in a rundown building in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He then
placed a newspaper ad for research sponsored by a private firm. There was no mention
of Yale. In all other ways, the experimental procedure was identical to the original.
Under these less impressive circumstances, the level of obedience dropped, but not
as much as Milgram expected: 48 percent of the participants continued to the maximum level of shock, compared with 65 percent in the original study. Milgram concluded that people are willing to obey orders to do great harm to another person even
when the authority making the demand is not especially reputable or prestigious.
The Behavior of Other People To study how the behavior of fellow participants
might affect obedience, Milgram (1965) created a situation in which there appeared to
be three teachers. Teacher 1 (in reality, a research assistant) read the words to the learner.
Teacher 2 (another research assistant) stated whether or not the learner’s response was
correct. Teacher 3 (the actual participant) was to deliver shock when the learner made
mistakes. At 150 volts, when the learner began to complain that the shock was too
painful, Teacher 1 refused to participate any longer and left the room. The experimenter
asked him to come back, but he refused. The experimenter then instructed Teachers 2
and 3 to continue by themselves. The experiment continued for several more trials. However, at 210 volts, Teacher 2 said that the learner was suffering too much and also refused
to participate further. The experimenter then told Teacher 3 (the actual participant) to
continue the procedure. In this case, only 10 percent of the participants (compared with
65 percent in the original study) continued to deliver shock all the way up to 450 volts.
In other words, as research on conformity would suggest, the presence of others who
disobey appears to be the most powerful factor in reducing obedience.
Personality Characteristics Were the participants in Milgram’s original experiment heartless creatures who would have given strong shocks even if there had been
no pressure on them to do so? Quite the opposite; most of them were nice people who
were influenced by experimental situations to behave in apparently antisocial ways. In
a later demonstration of the same phenomenon, college students playing the role of
prison guards behaved with aggressive heartlessness toward other students who were
playing the role of prisoners (Zimbardo, 1973). A more recent illustration of this phenomenon occurred among some U.S. soldiers who were assigned to guard or interrogate prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Still, not everyone is equally obedient to authority. For example, people who display
what we described earlier as authoritarianism are more likely than others to obey an
experimenter’s instructions to shock the learner (Blass, 2000). Support for this idea
comes from recent findings that German soldiers who may have obeyed orders to kill
Jews during World War II were higher on authoritarianism than other German men of
the same age and background (Steiner & Fahrenberg, 2000).
Evaluating Obedience Research
Milgram’s obedience studies were conducted forty years ago. How relevant are they today?
Consider this fact: The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority attributes some commercial
Is it ethical to deceive people
to learn about their social
behavior? (a link to
Introduction to the Science of
airplane accidents to what it calls “captainitis.” In this phenomenon, the pilot of an airliner makes an obvious error, but none of the other crew members are willing to challenge the captain’s authority by pointing out the error. As a result, planes have crashed
and people have died (Kanki & Foushee, 1990). Captainitis might have been operating
aboard the nuclear submarine USS Greeneville on February 9, 2001, when, as it surfaced off the coast of Hawaii, it struck and sank a Japanese fishing boat, killing nine
people. A navy board of inquiry found that crew members had been reluctant to challenge their captain’s order to surface, even though they felt he had not checked carefully enough for other vessels in the area (Myers, 2001). Obedience to authority may
also have operated during the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001, when
some people returned to their offices after hearing an ill-advised public address
announcement telling them to do so. Most of these people died as a result.
These tragic events suggest that Milgram’s findings are still relevant and important
(Blass, 2004). Similar kinds of obedience have been observed in experiments conducted
in many countries, from Europe to the Middle East, with female, as well as male, participants. In short, people appear to be as obedient today as they were when Milgram
conducted his research (Blass, 2004; Smith & Bond, 1999). Nevertheless, there is still
debate over the ethics and meaning of Milgram’s work. (For a summary of Milgram’s
results, plus those of studies on conformity and compliance, see “In Review: Types of
Social Influence.”)
Questions About Ethics Although the “learners” in Milgram’s experiment suffered
no discomfort, the participants did. Milgram (1963) observed participants “sweat, stutter, tremble, groan, bite their lips, and dig their fingernails into their flesh” (p. 375).
Against the potential harm inflicted by Milgram’s experiments stand the potential gains.
For example, people who learn about Milgram’s work often take his findings into
account when deciding how to act in social situations (Sherman, 1980). But even if
social value has come from Milgram’s studies, a question remains: Was it ethical for
Milgram to treat his participants as he did?
In the years before his death in 1984, Milgram defended his experiments (e.g.,
Milgram, 1977). He argued that the way he dealt with his participants after the experiment prevented any lasting harm. For example, he explained to them that the learner
did not experience any shock; in fact, the learner came in and chatted with each participant. On a later questionnaire, 84 percent of the participants said that they had
learned something important about themselves and that the experience had been
worthwhile. Milgram argued, therefore, that the experience was actually a positive one.
Still, the committees charged with protecting human participants in research today
would be unlikely to approve Milgram’s experiments, and less controversial ways to
study obedience have now been developed (Blass, 2004).
February of 2004, the managers of four
fast food restaurants in Boston,
Massachusetts, received calls from someone claiming to be a police detective on
the trail of a robbery suspect. The caller
said the suspect might be one of the
restaurant’s employees and told the managers to strip search all of them for evidence of guilt. The calls turned out to be
hoaxes, but every manager obeyed this
bizarre order, apparently because it appeared to come from a legitimate
authority. In a similar case, hospital nurses
obeyed medical treatment orders given
by a teenager who claimed he was a doctor (Kenrick, Neuberg, & Cialdini, 2005).
Do Milgram’s dramatic results mean that most people are putty in the hands of authority figures and that most of us would blindly follow inhumane orders from our leaders? Some critics have argued that Milgram’s results
cannot be interpreted in this way because his participants knew they were in an experiment and may simply have been playing a cooperative role. If so, the social influence
processes identified in his studies may not explain obedience in the real world today
(Berkowitz, 1999).
Most psychologists believe, however, that Milgram demonstrated a basic truth about
human behavior—namely, that under certain circumstances people are capable of
unspeakable acts of brutality toward other people. Sadly, examples abound. And one of
the most horrifying aspects of human inhumanity—whether it is the Nazis’ campaign
of genocide against Jews sixty years ago or the campaigns of terror under way today—
is that the perpetrators are not necessarily demented, sadistic fiends. Most of them are
normal people who have been prompted by economic, political, or religious influences
and the persuasive power of their leaders to behave in a demented and fiendish manner (Moghaddam, 2005).
Questions About Meaning
Fly UP