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Sunday, December 31, 2006

The lasting impact of Stanley Milgram's shocks

Scientists in London are revisiting Stanley Milgram's controversial 1961 experiment into obedience and cruelty. Instead of using actors to pretend to be electrocuted in another room, as Milgram did, the new experimenters deliver the fake shocks to a computer-animated person who the human subjects know isn't real.

The idea is to be less abusive to the human subjects than Milgram was. From the article on the new, animated study:
Infamous experiments almost 50 years ago discovered that ordinary people—under orders from an authority figure—would deliver apparently lethal electrical shocks to complete strangers... psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University [conducted] his controversial experiments in 1961, months after the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann began.
The Milgram experiment discovered that ordinary people could easily be persuaded to give what they believed to be lethal electrical shocks to randomly chosen strangers, even if it conflicted with their own consciences, if instructed to do so by a perceived authority figure. The stranger was at no time actually hurt.

"The line of research opened up by Milgram was of tremendous importance in the understanding of human behavior," said virtual reality researcher Mel Slater at University College London. However, it triggered a firestorm over the ethics of placing volunteers in deceptive and highly disturbing situations.
The results were alarming--famously so, thanks to Milgram's popular writing and filmmaking about the experiment. Milgram had a knack for designing illuminating social experiments--he famously conducted the "six degrees of separation" study--and for communicating the results to the public.

From Wikipedia:
Before the experiment was conducted Milgram polled 14 Yale senior psychology majors as to what the results would be. All respondents believed that only a sadistic few (average 1.2%), would be prepared to give the maximum voltage. Milgram also informally polled his colleagues, and found that they believed very few subjects would go beyond a very strong shock.

In Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 out of 40) of experimental participants administered the experiment's final 450-volt shock, though many were quite uncomfortable in doing so; everyone paused at some point and questioned the experiment, some even saying they would return the check for the money they were paid. No participant steadfastly refused to give further shocks before the 300-volt level.
Dr. Thomas Blass of the University of Maryland Baltimore County performed a meta-analysis on the results of repeated performances of the experiment. He found that the percentage of participants who are prepared to inflict fatal voltages remains remarkably constant, between 61% and 66%, regardless of time or location.

An introduction to sociology class at Columbia, I was told that Milgram's experiment was now considered intolerably unethical, and could never be approved today. I've have never understood that position. Sure, the subjects might be disturbed by what they learned about themselves, but they were not forced to electrocute others; in fact they were explicitly informed that they would be paid for participating whether or not they completed the ordered tasks.

It is disturbing that some subjects became so nervous that they suffered what Milgram called "uncontrollable seizures", but all were told in exit interviews that the shocked subjects had been acting and not really shocked. The only damage done by the experiments was to the subjects' false assumptions about themselves, and I do not believe that scientists have an ethical obligation to protect subjects from truth or its emotional results. There are some people who would experience psychological hardship just from hearing an explicit description of the Milgram experiment (or, for that matter, the horrors of slavery or the Holocaust); is it scientifically unethical to even discuss the experiment in detail to a public audience?

I might feel different if the quality that was being exposed was a hard one to change. A study where subjects are ridiculed for being fat, for example, would seem unethical to me, because the subjects cannot simply decide to change. But a subject startled into realizing her own latent cruelty can resolve right away to act differently in such situations in the future.

The Wikipedia article reports that few subjects complained later of Milgram's coercion (note that this section of the article provides no attribution):

In Milgram's defence, 84 percent of former participants surveyed later said they were "glad" or "very glad" to have participated and 15 percent chose neutral (92% of all former participants responding). Many later wrote expressing thanks. Milgram repeatedly received offers of assistance and requests to join his staff from former participants. Six years later (during the height of the Vietnam War), one of the participants in the experiment sent correspondence to Milgram, explaining why he was "glad" to have been involved despite the apparent levels of stress:

While I was a subject [participant] in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority. ... To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority's demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself. ... I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience...

Resorting to computer-animated characters to receive shocks means fewer unpredictable human responses like that shown above. How typical of our society (amd here I lump together the United States and Britain): we solve problems by pretending they don't exist, jump through hoops to prevent experiences we can't control, and respond to high stakes of joy and pain by ordering the difference split.

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