If someone told you to press a button to deliver a 450-volt electrical shock to an innocent person in the next room, would you do it?
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.
Burger's findings are published in a special section of the journal reflecting on Milgram's work 24 years after his death on Dec. 20, 1984. The haunting images of average people administering shocks have kept memories of Milgram's research alive for decades, even as recently as the Abu Ghraib scandal.
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.
In the study, conducted two years ago, volunteers administered what they believed were increasingly powerful electric shocks to another person in a separate room. An "authority figure'' prodded the volunteer to shock another person, who was playing the role of "learner." Each time the learner gave an incorrect answer, the volunteer was urged to press a switch, seemingly increasing the electricity over time. They were told that the shocks were painful but not dangerous.
Burger designed his study to avoid several of the most controversial elements of Milgram's experiment. For instance, the "shocks'' were lower voltage. And participants were told at least three times that they could withdraw from the study at any time and still receive the $50 payment. In addition, a clinical psychologist interviewed volunteers to eliminate anyone who might be upset by the study procedure.
Like Milgram's study, Burger's shock generator machine was a fake. The cries of pain weren't real, either. Both the authority figure and the learner were actors — faculty members Brian Oliveira and Kenneth Courtney.
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.
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