Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Psychology of Obedience: Part 1

In my first semester at college my psychology text talked about the power of authority and the it requests. In 1978 Stanly Milgram created an experiment to test how obedient a normal person would be in the face of perceived authority.

Three people take part in the experiment: "experimenter", "learner" ("victim") and "teacher" (participant). Only the "teacher" is an actual participant, i.e. unaware about the actual setup, while the "learner" is a confederate of the experimenter. The role of the experimenter was played by a stern, impassive biology teacher and the victim (learner) was played by a 47 year old Irish-American accountant trained to act for the role. The participant and the learner were told by the experimenter that they would be participating in an experiment helping his study of memory and learning in different situations.[1]
Two slips of paper were then presented to the men to decide who was the “teacher” and who was the “learner”, of course this was not a random selection. At this point, the "teacher" and "learner" were separated into different rooms where they could communicate but not see each other. In one version of the experiment, the confederate was sure to mention to the participant that he had a heart condition.[1]
The "teacher" was given an electric shock from the electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the "learner" would supposedly receive during the experiment. The "teacher" was then given a list of word pairs which he was to teach the learner. The teacher began by reading the list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read the first word of each pair and read four possible answers. The learner would press a button to indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. If correct, the teacher would read the next word pair.
The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the confederate was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. After a number of voltage level increases, the actor started to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject. After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, all responses by the learner would cease.
At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.
If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:
Please continue.
The experiment requires that you continue.
It is absolutely essential that you continue.
You have no other choice, you must go on.
If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.
This study has always weighed heavy on my heart. Tomorrow I'll explaine why.

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