Evidence Soup
How to find, use, and explain evidence.

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Tuesday, 23 December 2008

I've got some questions about the evidence from the latest faux shock therapy (Replicating Milgram).

In the so-called Milgram experiment, people famously administered electric shocks to others as part of a 1960s psychological study. The shocks weren't real, but participants weren't told that. When the experiment was recently replicated*, again people followed instructions to shock "learners" if they made mistakes. Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University did the research; Replicating Milgram appears in January's American Psychologist (download the 11-page pdf here).

Hmmm. I have some questions. I've read Burger's research, and can follow how he arrived at his evidence. But at the risk of sounding cynical, isn't it possible that some of the participants were just playing along -- suspecting that the electric shocks couldn't possibly be real in this day and age? In my graduate courses that involved role-playing games, I always thought it was fun to take an extreme stand, to make things interesting. Hear me out:

  • If someone offered you $50 to participate in an experiment, and then instructed you to shock people, wouldn't you suspect something was up? I'll bet some of us would laugh out loud. Lots of people have heard about the Milgram experiment -- they wouldn't know it by name, but many are aware of various controversial studies.
  • Participants received a sample shock, and were shown a "Shock Generator, Type ZLB, Dyson Instrument Company, Waltham, Mass. Output 15 volts – 450 Volts." Aren't most people at least *aware* of The Wizard of Oz, or The Roadrunner, or Punk'd, or The Simpsons, making them less likely to fall for the research stunt?
  • And if participants did in fact believe the shocks were real, where have they been all these years? Do they represent a valid sample of human behavioral traits?

Go ahead: One more can't hurt. Among other things, this evidence is supposed to reflect people's tendency to obey an authority figure, particularly in situations where behavioral norms aren't well-established. By gradually increasing the voltage in the faux shocks, both studies show that people are more likely to comply if an activity starts small and then escalates. Burger told the San Jose Mercury News: "The conclusion is not: 'Gosh isn't this a horrible commentary on human nature,' or 'these people were so sadistic'.... It shows the opposite — that there are situational forces that have a much greater impact on our behavior than most people recognize."

Some researchers expected different study results because they believe fewer people will blindly follow authority today than in the 1960s -- but Burger disagrees, saying they're making a fundamental attribution error: He claims that the influence of the situational forces in the experiment design has not changed over time. Maybe so, but I'd like to hear his response to my questions.

Not surprisingly, media coverage was heavy, including stories by Science Daily and CNN.

*Burger revised the methodology to avoid the most controversial aspects of Milgram's experiment. At least medical ethics have evolved over the past 40 years.

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