Lisa M. Krieger recently published a nice summary of Jerry Burger’s replications of Milgram’s obedience experiment. Her article in the San Jose Mercury News is titled “Shocking Revelation: Santa Clara University Professor Mirrors Famous Torture Studay.” Here are some excerpts.
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Replicating one of the most controversial behavioral experiments in history, a Santa Clara University psychologist has found that people will follow orders from an authority figure to administer what they believe are painful electric shocks.
More than two-thirds of volunteers in the research study had to be stopped from administering 150 volt shocks of electricity, despite hearing a person’s cries of pain, professor Jerry M. Burger concluded in a study published in the January issue of the journal American Psychologist.
“In a dramatic way, it illustrates that under certain circumstances people will act in very surprising and disturbing ways,” said Burger.
The study, using paid volunteers from the South Bay, is similar to the famous 1974 “obedience study” by the late Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. In the wake of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s trial, Milgram was troubled by the willingness of people to obey authorities — even if it conflicted with their own conscience.
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The subjects — recruited in ads in the Mercury News, Craigslist and fliers distributed in libraries and communities centers in Santa Clara, Cupertino and Sunnyvale — thought they were testing the effect of punishment on learning.”They were average citizens, a typical cross-section of people that you’d see around every day,” said Burger.
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Burger found that 70 percent of the participants had to be stopped from escalating shocks over 150 volts, despite hearing cries of protest and pain. Decades earlier, Milgram found that 82.5 percent of participants continued administering shocks. Of those, 79 percent continued to the shock generator’s end, at 450 volts.
Burger’s experiment did not go that far.
“The conclusion is not: ‘Gosh isn’t this a horrible commentary on human nature,’ or ‘these people were so sadistic,” said Burger.
“It shows the opposite — that there are situational forces that have a much greater impact on our behavior than most people recognize,” he said.
The experiment shows that people are more likely to comply with instructions if the task starts small, then escalates, according to Burger.
“For instance, the suicides at Jonestown were just the last step of many,” he said. “Jim Jones started small, asking people to donate time and money, then looked for more and more commitment.”
Additionally, the volunteers confronted a novel situation — having never before been in such a setting, they had no idea of how they were supposed to act, he said.
Finally, they had been told that they should not feel responsible for inflicting pain; rather, the “instructor” was accountable. “Lack of feeling responsible can lead people to act in ways that they might otherwise not,” said Burger.
“When we see people acting out of character, the first thing we should ask is: ‘What’s going on in this situation?”’
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To read the entire article, click here. To watch an ABC news video about Professor Burger’s research, click on the video below.
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To read a previos Situationist post about Professor Burger’s research, see “The Milgram Experiment Today?.” For Situationist posts about the Jonestown massacre, see “Jonestown (The Situation of Evil) Revisited.” For a collection of Situationist posts discussing Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, click here.