Students commonly assume that, even if Milgram’s famous experiment sheds important light on the power of situation today, were his experiment precisely reproduced today, it would not generate comparable results. To oversimplify the argument behind that claim: The power of white lab coats just ain’t what it used to be. Of course, that assertion has been difficult to challenge given that the option of replicating the Milgram experiment has been presumptively unavailable — indeed, it has been the paradigmatic example of why psychology experiments must be reviewed by institutional review boards (“IRBs”).
Who would even attempt to challenge that presumption? The answer: Jerry Burger, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University. With some slight modifications, Burger managed to obtain permission to replicate Milgram’s experiment — and the results may surprise you.
Below (or at this link) you can watch a video containing the ABC Primetime News story on Milgram original experiment and Burger’s replication of Milgram. Below that, you can read Burger’s first-hand account, from the December edition of the Observer, of how he managed this impressive feat. Finally, we’ve included a news story from this week suggesting the relevance of the Milgram’s findings for real-life.
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“It can’t be done.”
These are the first words I said to Muriel Pearson, producer for ABC News’ Primetime, when she approached me with the idea of replicating Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience studies. . . . Milgram’s participants were placed in an emotionally excruciating situation in which an experimenter instructed them to continue administering electric shocks to another individual despite hearing that person’s agonizing screams of protest. The studies ignited a debate about the ethical treatment of participants. And the research became, as I often told my students, the study that can never be replicated.
Nonetheless, I was intrigued. . . .
The challenge was to develop a variation of Milgram’s procedures that would allow useful comparisons with the original investigations while protecting the well-being of the participants. But meeting this challenge would raise another: I would also need to assuage the apprehension my IRB would naturally experience when presented with a proposal to replicate the study that can never be replicated.
I went to great lengths to recreate Milgram’s procedures (Experiment Five), including such details as the words used in the memory test and the experimenter’s lab coat. But I also made several substantial changes. First, we stopped the procedures at the 150-volt mark. This is the first time participants heard the learner’s protests through the wall and his demands to be released. When we look at Milgram’s data, we find that this point in the procedure is something of a “point of no return.” Of the participants who continued past 150 volts, 79 percent went all the way to the highest level of the shock generator (450 volts). Knowing how people respond up to this point allowed us to make a reasonable estimate of what they would do if allowed to continue to the end.
Stopping the study at this juncture also avoided exposing participants to the intense stress Milgram’s participants often experienced in the subsequent parts of the procedure.
Second, we used a two-step screening process for potential participants to exclude any individuals who might have a negative reaction to the experience. . . . More than 38 percent of the interviewed participants were excluded at this point.
Third, participants were told at least three times (twice in writing) that they could withdraw from the study at any time and still receive their $50 for participation. Fourth, like Milgram, we administered a sample shock to our participants (with their consent). However, we administered a very mild 15-volt shock rather than the 45-volt shock Milgram gave his participants. Fifth, we allowed virtually no time to elapse between ending the session and informing participants that the learner had received no shocks. Within a few seconds after ending the study, the learner entered the room to reassure the participant he was fine. Sixth, the experimenter who ran the study also was a clinical psychologist who was instructed to end the session immediately if he saw any signs of excessive stress. Although each of these safeguards came with a methodological price (e.g., the potential effect of screening out certain individuals, the effect of emphasizing that participants could leave at any time), I wanted to take every reasonable measure to ensure that our participants were treated in a humane and ethical manner.
Of course, I also needed IRB approval. I knew from my own participation on the IRB that the proposal would be met with concern and perhaps a little fear by the board’s members. . . . Given the possibility of a highly visible mistake, the easy response would have been to say “no.” To address these concerns, I created a list of individuals who were experts on Milgram’s studies and the ethical questions surrounding this research. I offered to make this list available to the IRB. More important, Steven Breckler, a social psychologist who currently serves as the executive director for science at the American Psychological Association, graciously provided an assessment of the proposal’s ethical issues that I shared with the IRB.
In the end, all the extra steps and precautions paid off. The IRB carefully reviewed and then approved the procedures. More than a year after collecting the data, I have no indication that any participant was harmed by his or her participation in the study. On the contrary, I was constantly surprised by participants’ enthusiasm for the research both during the debriefing and in subsequent communications. We also produced some interesting findings. Among other things, we found that today people obey the experimenter in this situation at about the same rate they did 45 years ago. ABC devoted an entire 60-minute Primetime broadcast to the research and its implications. Finally, it is my hope that other investigators will use the 150-volt procedure and thereby jump-start research on some of the important questions that motivated Stanley Milgram nearly half a century ago.
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Sometimes real life instances of Milgram experiments prove the most telling. For a very recent one, we take you to Canton, Massachusetts, and specifically the Judge Rotenberg Education Center, a special-education school for students in grades one through 12. The Boston Herald reports on a harrowing story of students receiving electric shocks because of a prank caller who seemed authoritative. We excerpt portions of the story below.
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Staff members at a group home made multiple mistakes when they followed a prank caller’s direction to give dozens of electrical shocks to two emotionally disturbed teenagers, according to a report by a state agency that investigated the incident.
The report by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care said six staffers at a Stoughton residence run by the Canton-based Judge Rotenberg Education Center had ample reason to doubt the orders to administer the shocks, but did nothing to stop it.
The six staff members and video surveillance worker on duty that night were fired on Oct. 1, Ernest Corrigan, the school’s spokesman, said Thursday.
After the Aug. 26 call, the teens, ages 16 and 19, were awakened in the middle of the night and given the shock treatments, at times while their legs and arms were bound. One teen received 77 shocks and the other received 29. One boy was treated for two first-degree burns.
The caller posed as a supervisor and said he was ordering the punishments because the teens had misbehaved earlier in the evening. But none of the staffers had witnessed any problems, and other boys said the two teens had done nothing wrong. One boy suggested the call was a hoax.
The report says the caller was a former resident of the center with intimate knowledge of the staff, residents and layout of the Stoughton home. No motive was given and the caller’s identity wasn’t disclosed. Police are looking into filing criminal charges.
Five of the six staffers had worked a double or triple shift and most had been on the job less than three months. The staffers were described as concerned and reluctant about the orders, but failed to verify them with the central office or check treatment plans to make sure the teens could receive that level of shock therapy, the report said. Staffers also didn’t know who the shift supervisor was that night.
Staff members realized their mistake after someone finally called the central office.
One reason staffers might not have been suspicious of the phone call is that the Rotenberg Center uses surveillance cameras in its group homes to monitor residents and staff, and a central office employee is allowed to initiate discipline by phone.
As a result of the investigation, the center has expanded staff training, implemented new telephone verification procedures, added oversight at group homes and eliminated delayed punishment.
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For the rest of the story, click here. For an excellent Mother Jones expose on the Judge Rotenberg Education Center, click here. For a collection of previous Situationist posts discussing Milgram’s classic experiment, click here.
P.S. Under the category of “great blogs blog alike” be sure to read the excellent posts, “So It Really Can Happen?” at Psyblog and “Milgram Study Comes to Life (Again)” at Advances in the History of Psychology.