Some psychological experiments are so profound in what they demonstrate about human nature
that they end up assuming an iconic status in popular culture. Three of the most famous experiments to have achieved this status share one common theme: humans' instinctual capacity to succumb to conformity
pressures. Stanley Milgram's study
, perhaps the most famous psychology experiment ever conducted, investigated our penchant to obey authority figures even when they force us to engage in otherwise brutish and unconscionable acts (administering a punishing schedule of electric shocks to another human being). Solomon Asch
demonstrated people's uncanny ability to conform to group pressure, even when it is objectively clear that the group is offering wrong responses to a visual test (which of three lines, A, B, or C is the same length as a fourth line X). Finally, Philip Zimbardo's prison experiment
showed that individuals adopt very rapidly the norms of the roles that they are ascribed (corrections officers versus prisoners in his infamous study).
Most introductory courses in psychology cover the latter three experiments. In my consumer behavior course, I discuss these studies for two distinct reasons: (1) Conformity arises in many consumer settings (e.g., conforming to fashion trends); as such it is important to demonstrate our instinctual penchant to yield to such forces; (2) I want students to appreciate the fact that many of the most powerful findings in the behavioral sciences arose from studies that were elegant due to their conceptual and methodological simplicity. No need for convoluted factorial designs and intricate methodological procedures. Methodological parsimony is a scientific art.
This brings me to a television documentary that I watched on Sunday night, Jeu De La Mort [Game of Death]. The documentary described a recent take on the Milgram experiment masquerading under the guise of a glitzy French game show titled La Zone Xtrême [The Extreme Zone]. Do you remember the percentage of individuals who administered the maximal amount of permitted voltage in the Milgram study? To the astonishment and incredulity of the scientific community, roughly two-thirds of the participants had done so. Not to be outdone, 81% of the French volunteers went all the way. Marquis de Sade is rolling in his grave beaming with unadulterated pride. ☺
As I was about to put up this post, I conducted a search on the Psychology Today portal (as I was concerned that someone might have beaten me to the punch)...Tamara McClintock Greenberg did so nearly one year ago (although I only saw the documentary two nights ago)! See here for her post.
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