Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Shocking close: Changing victim proximity in Milgram’s classic experiment.

After the horrific mass suicide led by the Nazis in World War II it was questioned why the German citizenry participated, or at least allowed the killings to continue, without much protest. Stanley Milgram aimed to address this, planning to travel to Germany to study obedience to authority, reasoning that there would be a high enough incidence of the effect to analyse scientifically. During pilot studies in the early 60’s, however, he discovered that he may as well save the plane fare and stay closer to home: Milgram had stumbled upon the rather frightening realisation that rather than the cause being born of German blood, the capacity to carry out the butchering of innocents on direct orders was inherent in everyone (Milgram, 1974).

In Milgram’s most famous experiment (Milgram, 1963), two participants entered a room and drew lots to be assigned either the role of ‘Teacher’ or ‘Learner’. The Teacher’s role was to help the Learner memorize word pairs by administering an electric shock for wrong answers, the voltage increasing for each subsequent incorrect response. The Teacher helped strap the Learner into an electric chair, then began the procedure from the next room over a two-way intercom.  In actuality, the lot had been rigged and the confederate Learner received no electric shocks, which is fortunate considering 98% of Teachers ‘shocked’ the Learner with the maximum 450 volts (labelled ‘warning: extreme shock’ for good measure) despite groans, screams of pain, begging to be released, and finally a chilling silence from the next room. The only motivation the Teacher needed to continue torturing an innocent man was an order from a position of authority: the experimenter.

With these disturbing findings in mind, Milgram (1965) carried out several further experiments investigating how varying the Teacher’s interaction with the Learner influenced levels of obedience. In the first condition, the victim could not be seen or heard, except for pounding on the wall at 300 volts which stopped immediately after 315 volts had been administered (Remote Feedback). The second condition had the victim protesting loudly as in the classic experiment, which could be heard through a slightly ajar door and reverberating through the walls of the laboratory (Voice Feedback). A third condition had the victim in the same room as the Teacher about 1½ feet away, so his screams of pain could be heard, as well as be seen writhing in his chair (Proximity). The fourth condition had the victim receive the shock through an electrified plate; meaning beyond 150 volts the Teacher had to force down the Learner’s resisting hand to administer further punishment (Touch-Proximity).

Unsurprisingly, obedience dropped the more contact the Teacher had with the Learner: 34% defiance in the Remote condition, 37.5% with Voice Feedback, 60% in Proximity, and 70% in Touch-Proximity. The original graph is displayed below. Despite this drop in obedience, it should still be noted a worrying 30% of subjects would still physically force a protesting innocent to receive a potentially fatal electric shock.

In light of these findings, it’s not so hard to imagine mass murder committed by soldiers under orders.  We could also consider the increased ease at which we can inflict pain and suffering on our fellow man during war time: pressing a button to lauch a chemical strike on a village several hundred miles away is significantly easier than running one man through with a sword in hand-to-hand combat.

Stuart Miller

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioural study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.
Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18(1), 57-76.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row.

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