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What Would YOU Have Done in Milgram’s Experiment?

Enhanced Self-Perceptions and Obedience to Authority

Most regular people are capable of obeying an authority figure’s commands to the point of killing an innocent other.

This is the bottom line of Stanley Milgram’s (1963) famous research into the nature of human obedience. Milgram’s work, arguably the most highly cited and most important research in the history of the social sciences, involved having groups of normal adults in Connecticut take on the role of “teacher” in a laboratory experiment. In this experiment (which included much in the way of deception about the true purpose of the study), the “teacher” was told to administer electric shocks to a “learner” who was (ostensibly) also a participant in the study. The shocks were to increase each time the “learner” made a mistake – and the machine used to administer these shocks (which were actually fake) was labeled with such terms as “DANGER” and “XXX.” Further, the experimenter, a tall, serious guy in a lab coat, told the “teacher” that he must continue increasing the voltage. And the “learner” starts screaming and complains of a heart condition – and then, after the voltages are extremely high, the “learner” stops responding in any capacity at all.

In short, this drama, created by master social psychologist Stanley Milgram, was designed to get the real participant (the “teacher”) to think that he had just killed a man – only because the participant didn’t have the guts to disobey the experimenter. That’s got to smart.

Teaching about Milgram’s research is certainly a high point in the semester of any social psychology professor. The lessons learned, the power of the study itself, etc., combine for a deep and important lesson on the nature of human behavior.

What Would YOU Do?

Students who learn about Milgram’s research have several standard responses. They are partly outraged. They are partly surprised. Interestingly, a common theme that also tends to emerge is this: Students often comment that “they themselves wouldn’t have obeyed the experimenter.” They come up with all kinds of reasons on this point.

My wife Kathy, also a social psychologist, and I were curious about this particular point. Of course, in our discussion, I stated that I would not have obeyed the experimenter. Similarly, she maintained that SHE would not have obeyed the commands – but that she thought I would have. Ha!

So being experimental social psychologists ourselves, we designed a study to explore this issue. Along with two great students, Sara Hubbard Hall and Jared Legare, we studied perceptions of what people think they would do in Milgram’s experiment (Geher et al., 2002).

In this research, we briefly described the methodology of Milgram’s study and asked participants to indicate on a scale of 0 to 450 volts the point at which they thought that they would disobey the experimenter. The truth is that more than 60% of the participants in Milgram’s research “shocked all the way” (to 450 volts). We also asked our participants to indicate the highest shock level that they would predict that a “typical other person of their same age and gender” would go up until before disobeying the experimenter.

The results? Shocking! On average, people indicated that they would stop at about 140 volts, whereas they predicted that “typical others” would stop obeying at about 210 volts. That is a difference of 35%. In other words, on average, people think that they are about 35% more likely to “do the right thing” compared with “typical others.” People seem to be biased to think of themselves as somehow better than average (see McFarland & Miller (1990)) – and our results pretty clearly tell such a tale.

Further, the “self” ratings and “other” ratings in our study were from “statistically non-overlapping distributions.” This is a fancy way of saying that not a single person in the study (with over 100 adult participants) indicated that they would obey the authority figure more than would the “typical other” – everyone – every single person in this study – reported that they would be better than “the typical other.” Interesting, right?

Bottom Line

Hey, we’re all human. Milgram showed that it’s in our nature to be highly influenced by social situations – and it’s often in our nature to obey authority even when doing so is clearly the wrong thing to do.

Our research on perceptions of what people would do in Milgram’s study provides an interesting corollary to Milgram’s findings. We tend to think that we personally are above all that – humans like you and I are highly motivated to think that we would do the right thing. In fact, we tend to think that we’re about 35% more likely to do the right thing than the “typical other.”

In combination, these findings paint a complex picture of human nature. On one hand, we are highly influenced by situational factors – often more so than we should be. On the other hand, we seem to be highly motivated to not see how powerful situational forces are in shaping our own behavior. Taken together, these findings speak very much to the turmoil and inner conflict that so often underly the nature of human social behavior.

Can you tell I’m excited for the Hollywood production of Milgram’s research to hit the big screen in October? Experimenter comes out October 16. If you are a social psychology nerd like me, then admit it, you're excited for this one too!

References and Related Information

Geher, G., Bauman, K.P., Hubbard, S.E.K., & Legare, J. (2002). Self and other obedience estimates: Biases and moderators. The Journal of Social Psychology, 142, 677-689.

Mcfarland, C., & Miller, D. T. (1990). Judgments of Self-Other Similarity Just Like Other People, Only more So. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 16, 475-484.

Milgram, Stanley (1963). "Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67 (4): 371–8.

Experimenter (2015). Directed by Michael Almereyda.

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