Monday, January 05, 2009

Milgram Redux

Neo-neocon put me on to this replication of Milgram's famous studies on obedience to authority. You studied this in introductory psychology: a researcher tells a college student that s/he is participating in an experiment to test whether administering shocks to people who get wrong answers helps them to learn more quickly. The person receiving the shocks is an actor, and no real electricity is used. It is the student who is actually being studied, to see if s/he will continue to administer shocks under orders from the researcher. As the voltage increases, the actor reacts more strongly, then not at all, as if seriously harmed or even dead. Milgram found that a majority of people would keep shocking the victim with increasing voltage if the researcher tells them to.

The repeat experiment was less dramatic, but showed similar results. The immediate conclusion that the psych textbooks draw is how morally weak many of us are, willing to inflict pain just because an authority figure tells us to.

I suggest that the textbooks and the New York Times are wrong about this. These are not clean experiments, neither Milgram's original nor the recent replication, and the experiment doesn't show what they say it does. There is a lot else going on here.

Milgram's original was in 1963, when memories of Nuremberg were still green. We were still aghast that the most cultured and educated nation on earth could somehow go berserk and its citizens become monsters. The 60's psychologists were also eager to show that A) Americans were little better than nazis, and B) ours is an authority-loving culture. I remember well how much we congratulated ourselves at being better than common folk, because we were an authority-questioning tribe of modern college students and social scientists - demonstrating this by all wearing tight jeans, bright colors, and long hair, just to show that we weren't like those others. Far out, huh?.

The experiment starts out with the shocker being told that the shockee has volunteered for the experiment. So already, we are not measuring whether students would obediently just harm others for no reason just because some guy in a lab coat says so. The shocks were reportedly going to help the shockee learn. As they were mild at first, it is an open question whether the person administering the faux shocks thought he was causing any significant harm to another person. We find the idea of painful stimuli distasteful, but it is not immediately obvious that a volunteer who hopes to gain something is being harmed. People signed up for Synanon, EST, and other confrontive therapies, athletes in training use pain as a measure of effort, mild aversive therapies are still used with consent, and most adults believe that a certain amount of discomfort must be endured to grow up in life. In its earlier stages then, the experiment measures whether people think such methods will work, or are at least willing to consider that possibility. Sadism and obedience are irrelevant at this stage. As the experiment progresses, obedience does enter the picture, but the waters are muddied by the concepts of sunk cost and willingness to admit error, in addition to the assent to the original belief of whether aversive techniques work.

Early in my mental health career, I worked on a behavioral unit that allowed aversive responses to patient behavior. Most dramatically, we were instructed to throw a glass of water in the face of Anna D every time she stole a cigarette. I went along with this for two weeks before I balked and said I could no longer participate. Was it my obedience that was at issue here? Partly, but my belief that aversive techniques worked was more to the point. Though I am much less convinced of that now, we still use antabuse, and I could see myself signing up for something uncomfortable if I thought it would treat an addiction or paraphilia.


Anonymous said...

we were an authority-questioning tribe of modern college students and social scientists - demonstrating this by all wearing tight jeans, bright colors, and long hair, just to show that we weren't like those others

My favorite response:

"Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. In either case you let yourself be defined by what they tell you to do."

Legal-Right said...

This is an interesting take on these experiments. I remember being spoon fed, by professors, the idea that individuals are controllable by perceived authority figures, as "proven" in these research experiments. It would have been nice to challenge their authority with this interpretation.

Boethius said...

Too bad they do not have a medication which will make you sick if you eat junk-food. I would pay for that aversion therapy.