New Milgram replication in Poland finds 90 per cent of participants willing to deliver highest shock

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By guest blogger Ginny Smith

Fifty years ago, in Connecticut, a series of infamous experiments were taking place. The volunteers believed they were involved in an investigation into learning and memory, and that they would be administering shocks to a test subject whenever he answered questions incorrectly. But despite pretences, the scientist behind the research, Stanley Milgram, wasn’t actually interested in learning. The real topic of study? Obedience.

Milgram recorded how far his participants were willing to go when told to deliver larger and larger shocks. In one version of the study, 26 out of 40 participants continued to the highest shock level – two steps beyond the button labelled “Danger: severe shock”.

But this was 50 years ago – surely the same wouldn’t happen if the experiment were conducted today? That’s what a group of researchers from SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland aimed to find out, in a “partial replication” of Milgram published recently in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Today’s ethical guidelines meant Dariusz Doliński and his colleagues couldn’t recreate Milgram’s experiment completely. However, they took advantage of the fact that in the original experiments, the 10th shock level seemed especially important, a kind of “point of no return”. The overwhelming majority of the participants who went this far continued to the end of the experiment, administering the 30th and final shock level (labelled XXX), even though there’s evidence some of them believed the shock may have been lethal.

So Doliński and his team used just 10 shock levels, to speed things up and reduce the stress of the task on their 80 participants (aged 18 to 69; attempts were made to exclude those likely to be familiar with the original Milgram research). The researchers assumed that the portion of participants who agreed to administer this 10th shock (labelled 450 volts) would give a good assessment of the proportion who would have been prepared to go all the way in the original version of the research.

Just like Milgram, and other replication attempts in the US and elsewhere, the team found the majority (90 per cent in this case) of “teachers” were willing to continue to the highest shock level, even after hearing screams of pain from the “learner”. The researchers also went a step further, attempting to find out whether the sex of the “learner” had any effect on the “teacher’s” behaviour. However because so few “teachers” refused to continue to the end, there was too small a sample size to see if disobedience was higher when the ‘learner’ was male or female.

So what does this tell us? First, it suggests that despite the so-called replication crisis currently gripping psychology, there are still some classic findings that are reliable, albeit that there is fierce debate over how to interpret participants’ behaviour and whether it truly reflects obedience or not. Second, it highlights the fact that obedience – if that is what’s on display – is common across cultures. Poland, and other Eastern European countries around it, have experienced huge political changes over the last 80 years, with heavily controlled communism giving way to democratic freedoms. Now, the pendulum is starting to swing again, with the socially conservative “Law and Justice” party winning the 2015 Polish elections and remaining hugely popular. But despite all these changes, and the issues that have come with them, the instinct to submit to authority still seems to be strong.

Would You Deliver an Electric Shock in 2015? Obedience in the Experimental Paradigm Developed by Stanley Milgram in the 50 Years Following the Original Studies

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Post written for BPS Research Digest by Ginny Smith (@GinnyFBSmith). Ginny studied Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, specialising in Psychology and Neuroscience. Since graduating, she has had to opportunity to spread her love of science as a science communicator. She has developed a range of science shows about the brain which she performs at science festivals and to school groups around the country, as well as teaching at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Continuing Education.

14 thoughts on “New Milgram replication in Poland finds 90 per cent of participants willing to deliver highest shock”

  1. What kind of racist click bait article is this? 90% of Polish people? I think you mean the study was conducted in Poland. That’s so absolutely disingenuous.

    Also what are you even writing? You state that obedience appears to be cross cultural, but in the same paragraph try to tie to finding to some sort of Polish specific phenomenon.

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    1. >I think you mean the study was conducted in Poland.
      That is literally what the heading says. It’s your disingenuous interpretation that makes it “clickbait”.

      >You state that obedience appears to be cross cultural, but in the same paragraph try to tie to finding to some sort of Polish specific phenomenon.
      Read that paragraph again. “Despite all these changes”, Poles are still the same as everybody else.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. There was certainly no racist intent. I’ve tweaked the headline in an effort to reduce any potential offence. I wanted to highlight in the headline the fact the study was conducted in Poland / with Polish participants because most prior replication attempts of this kind have been in North America. The findings are similar across cultures; Ginny then proceeds to interpret the new findings in light of recent social change specific to Poland. I don’t see a contradiction there.

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      1. And you do not find problem with the fact that the party winning the elections has nothing to do with Milgram experiment because similar experiments have shown similar results. The author somehow, finds a fault with the Polish people for choosing their government.

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  2. Racist click-bait trash mag, linking a study to “national character” and even claiming politics has something to do with this. White liberals have no compunction making sweeping racial statements on other white ethnic groups. Same reason why they regularly attack white working class people as “rednecks”, “hillbillies” and “white trash”. Yet if someone touches the hair of a black person, these same shitlibs lose their minds. They are pure poison and this article shows it once again.

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    1. Extraordinary is your cognitive dissonance – outraged at the perceived slight on Polish people and raving about anti white racism and then exposing yourself as a racist! So racism is only wrong when aimed at whites? You also have ‘black and white’ thinking in more ways than one – there are many other ‘races’ in the world.

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  3. Very disappointing to see the BPS continuing the sensationalising of the original series of studies. Participants were assured that although the shocks may be painful they would lead to no tissue damage and yet you make the leap from this to the participants believing the shocks were “lethal”? Saying they believed the shocks they were giving were “lethal” is very dramatic and makes the research sound exciting but this alleged belief is not supported by the original reports.

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    1. Try to ease your disappointment by seeking out the many critiques and reinterpretations of the Milgram studies that we have published here on the Research Digest blog (you will find a search box in the right-hand column). Regarding your specific point, you are correct about the reassurances the participants were given, but on the shock machine the labels were clear with the highest marked XXX after “danger severe shock” and “extreme intensity shock”. Also bear in mind that, depending on the particular study variant, the “learner” screams in pain at 300 volts and complains of heart problems. He falls silent at 330 volts. In another variant he bangs on the wall before falling silent.

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  4. The entire Milgram setup was designed to be convincing, imposing and professional. According to participant testimony – for example see Gina Perry’s Behind The Shock Machine – at least some thought the shocks were real and feared they had killed the “learner”. For instance, according to Perry, one participant wrote to Milgram, “I actually checked the death notices in the New Haven Register for at least two weeks after the experiment to see if I had been involved and a contributing factor in the death of the so-called learner.” According to Milligram’s own observations, “Subjects were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh. These were characteristic rather than exceptional responses to the experiment.”

    However to reflect the fact that some participants saw through the setup, I’ve amended the text slightly to read “and there’s evidence some of them believed the shock may have been lethal” rather than “which they thought was lethal” .

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  5. Perhaps some of the righteous indignation would be more appropriate in the tabloid. Read the original study. There is nothing in the article that is sensationalistic or “click-bait.” It is a blog post–designed to get the attention of the reader–which clearly it was effective in doing. There is nothing discriminatory, condescending or racially motivated in the text. The author of the blog post did what she was tasked with doing, which was highlight a recent study. Good job. Now let´s move on.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Could someone explain this please? “However because so few “teachers” refused to continue to the end, there was too small a sample size to see if disobedience was higher when the ‘learner’ was male or female.” I thought 90% of 80 was 72, so 72 continued to the end.

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