Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The six forms of resistance shown by participants in Milgram's notorious "obedience studies"

When discussing Milgram's notorious experiments, in which participants were instructed to give increasingly dangerous electric shocks to another person, most commentators take a black or white approach.

Participants are categorised as obedient or defiant, and the headline result is taken as the surprising number of people – the majority – who obeyed by going all the way and administering the highest, lethal voltage.

A new study takes a different stance by looking at the different acts of resistance shown by Milgram's participants, regardless of whether they ultimately completed the experiment. This isn't the first time researchers have explored defiance in the Milgram paradigm (for example, see this 2011 study, and last year's reinterpretation of the findings), but it's the most comprehensive analysis of resistance as revealed through the dialogue in Milgram's original studies.

Sociology doctoral researcher Matthew Hollander has purchased and transcribed audio recordings of 117 of Milgram's participants taken from different versions of the seminal 1960s research. He has carefully analysed the three-way conversational interactions between the experimenter, each participant playing the role of "teacher", and the "learner" (actually an actor) who was subjected to the shocks and cried out in pain and protest. From these interactions, Hollander has identified six different forms of resistance, three implicit and three explicit.

The three implicit forms of resistance were: silences and hesitations (e.g. after the experimenter has instructed the participant to continue with the process); imprecations (often in response to cries from the learner); and laughter. The claim about laughter is controversial because earlier commentators have interpreted laughter by Milgram's participants as a worrying sign of sadism. Hollander is interested in those specific instances when participant laughter followed commands from the experimenter – this laughter, he believes, was an act of resistance because it was intended to show the participant's ability to cope with the difficult situation.

The three explicit forms of resistance were: addressing the learner (e.g. asking him if he's happy to continue); prompting the experimenter (e.g. either querying whether it's necessary to continue, or telling him that the learner is in pain); and finally "stop tries", in which the participant stated he or she did not want to continue.

Comparing participants who ultimately obeyed all the way to the highest shock, and those who refused to complete the experiment, there are some revealing similarities and differences in the forms of resistance they used along the way.

Most participants who completed the experiment, and those who refused, used the implicit "wait and see" resistance strategies, which Hollander says were designed to delay the continuation of the experiment, presumably in the hope that the experimenter would halt proceedings. But only the participants who, at some stage, refused to complete the experiment, used the explicit strategy of addressing the learner – effectively granting him the authority to dictate whether the process should continue. These defiant participants also used more "stop tries" – 98 per cent used at least one, compared with just 19 per cent of the participants who ultimately completed the experiment.

Hollander said his conversation-analytic approach promised to "open up new perspectives on an old experiment whose legacy lives on." What's more, he believes the same approach could usefully be applied to other settings. By improving our understanding of the interpersonal dynamics of authority and the resistance to authority, such research "could save lives and empower potential victims," he said.

Hollander, M. (2015). The repertoire of resistance: Non-compliance with directives in Milgram's ‘obedience’ experiments British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12099

--further reading--
More on Stanley Milgram in the Research Digest archive.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


  1. Why is giving detailed information about your education and extra curricular activity a "less obvious takeaway"?

  2. I worked for human resources and I know how this test is suppose to work. It is funny that the same questions get asked more than once in different framing. They are just trying to see if people really are paying attention as a sign that they really are interested in the job. It is a way to decrease turnover rates.

  3. The thing is, changing the framing of the question changes the question, and consequently it doesn't have the same meaning, so different answers for "the same question" don't necessarily indicate someone "isn't paying attention" it just means that they are looking at the questions and test at a different level of context that what the recruiter is looking for. If they're looking for total consistency, they're looking for dumb, boring people.

  4. What Kristy is talking about are not subtle differences. If you answer, strongly agree to "I enjoy cooking" and strongly disagree to "I can't stand being in the kitchen", you probably aren't paying attention.

  5. Or maybe they just had a really great barbecue experience? Those questionnaires are typically too short to give any meaningful conclusions.

  6. I get your point but... somebody who enjoys cooking WOULD strongly disagree with the statement "I can't stand being in the kitchen".

  7. I think you're the one not paying attention. The example you gave shows perfect consistency, expectable from someone who pays attention.

  8. Doh...! Damn those double negatives!

  9. On the latter, there has historically been some debate about whether extracurricular details are a distraction from what should be focused on, and wasting valuable real estate. Volunteering could also be seen as a risk factor - will the person be sinking time into non-work activities to the detriment of their work? - so it's heartening to see that the gut evaluation is to see volunteering as a potential asset, particularly as this links to recent work suggesting that volunteering confers benefits to the workplace - see eg

    The former is also a real estate issue - that participants preferred to see more detailed info including awards and honours, and even the focus of an MBA (even when the job applied for is a hypothetical, generic one, meaning the focus doesn't necessarily make them more attractive).

  10. No, it is not a way to tell if you are paying attention and it is not a way to decrease turnover rates. I am an Industrial Organizational Psychologist who creates personality and biodata measures (for the Army). These"re-framing" of questions are used to establish reliabilities of that particular construct. If your HR work was using this as any other indication, you're using an invalidated approach.


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