Monday, June 10, 2013

About the Milgram Experiment on Obedience

There was a recent article, "On Obedience - Updated," that reviewed what took place in the Stanley Milgram Experiments in which a test subject was asked to apply an electric shock to what was purportedly another test subject on the other side of a wall and this was for the purpose of understanding educational techniques.  The actual purpose was to determine how much of a shock / pain the test subject would administer before refusing to continue.  In a surprising number of cases, the test subject did not stop even after the one receiving the shocks had complained of heart problems and had fallen silent, possibly even died.

In a recent book, "Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments" (Amazon), the author did a follow-up study interviewing many of the people who had been test subjects in the experiments.  The author, Gina Perry, claims the number of test subjects who bought the validity of the experiments was much lower than Milgram had claimed in his writings.  Where Milgram claimed about 75% believed, Perry says the number is actually about 50%.

In interviewing the test subjects, Perry received the response from some percentage of them that they knew the experiment was fake and they continued because they wanted to know how far the experimenter would go with it.  However, I have trouble with Perry's result as there's no attempt at scientific method whereas Milgram went to great lengths to create the illusion in the experiment of what he was trying to test.

There is an inevitable bias in the follow-up study as no-one wants to appear as an obedient, cold-blooded machine so it benefits the psyche of the one-time test subject to deny that reality.  If, in fact, the test subjects knew it was fake, why would they not say something during the course of the experiment or, at a minimum, after the experiment was completed.  (For more detail on the book, see "How many people really went through with the Milgram Experiment?" by Esther Inglis-Arkell)

The reasons for revisiting this subject are two-fold as there is the obvious fascination with the results of the experiment and what that reveals about the nature of humans but there is also a recent survey by CNN in which the majority (i.e. 52%) of people polled responded they didn't mind the NSA monitoring them.  I've ranted at great length on the NSA ("Privacy is So Over-Rated in a Free Country - Updated") so there is no need to revisit that so what's interesting to me now is why the NSA is enjoying such compliance.  It seems to me the Milgram Experiments are as applicable to the modern time as when they were first conducted.

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