By Liliana Segura, AlterNet - A famous 1970s experiment was recently replicated, revealing our vulnerabilities and what it takes for us to question those in positions of authority.
Between 1963 and 1974, Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments that would become one of the most famous social psychology studies of the 20th century. His focus was how average people respond to authority, and what he revealed stunned and disturbed people the world over.
Under the pretense of an experiment on "learning" and "memory," Milgram placed test subjects in a lab rigged with fake gadgetry, where a man in a lab coat instructed them to administer electrical shocks to a fellow test subject (actually an actor) seated in another room in "a kind of miniature electric chair."
Participants were told they were the "teachers" in the scenario and given a list of questions with which to quiz their counterparts (the "learners"). If the respondent answered incorrectly to a question, he got an electric shock as punishment.
The shocks were light at first -- 15 volts -- and became stronger incrementally, until they reached 450 volts -- a level labeled "Danger: Severe Shock." The actors were never actually electrocuted, but they pretended they were. They groaned, shouted, and, as the current became stronger, begged for relief. Meanwhile, the man in the lab coat coolly told the test subjects to keep going.
To people's horror, Milgram discovered that a solid majority of his subjects -- roughly two-thirds -- were willing to administer the highest levels of shock to their counterparts. This was as true among the first set of his test subjects (Yale undergrads), to subsequent "ordinary" participants as described by Milgram ("professionals, white-collar workers, unemployed persons and industrial workers"), to test subjects abroad, from Munich to South Africa. It was also as true for women as it was for men (although female subjects reported a higher degree of anxiety afterward).
For people who learned of the study, this became devastating proof, not only of human beings' slavish compliance in the face of authority, but of our willingness to do horrible things to other people. The study has been used to explain everything from Nazi Germany to the torture at Abu Ghraib.
But what if Milgram's obedience studies tell us something else, something just as essential, not about our obedience to authority, but what it takes for people to resist it? Now, for the first time in decades, a psychologist has replicated Milgram's famous study (with some critical changes).
The bad news: His results are statistically identical to Milgram's. The good news: Contrary to popular perception, the lesson it teaches us is not that human beings are a breed of latent torturers. "Actually," says Dr. Jerry Burger, the psychologist who led the exercise, "what I think is that the real lesson of the demonstration is quite the opposite."
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