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.
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.