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The Best News About Friendship

Your closest connections are woven into your personality.

Key points

  • When you think about your friends, how far would you go to protect and help them?
  • A new analysis of the classic Milgram experiments shows the surprising ways that friends help friends.
  • The special relationship you have with your friends can become part of the fabric of your personality.

When you think about the limits of friendship, what does this mean to you? Would you do literally anything for a friend, even if it involved putting yourself at risk? Or would you base your response to a friend’s request on more conservative grounds?

Perhaps one of your closest friends has run into a problem with childcare that would prevent them from attending an important family event taking place over a weekend. You’ve got your own plans for that weekend, ones that you’ve looked forward to for some time. However, you could always reschedule your own if you decided to help your friend. What would you do?

A Classic Experiment That Tests the Limits of Friendship

You have likely heard about the “obedience” experiments conducted in the 1960s by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram and published in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority. The setup of his experiments followed from this basic premise. Participants in these studies believed that they were supposed to teach a “Learner,” who was actually hired by Milgram, by giving them (phony) electric shocks if they made a mistake. The “Experimenter” (not Milgram, but an employee) instructed the “Teacher” (the participant) to administer the shock every time the “Learner” made a mistake. There were 19 variations of this experiment published in the book that differed in the social components of the situation.

Most interpretations of this experiment are that it proves the fact that ordinary people can be led into following orders by someone in charge, even if those orders are to harm someone. However, according to a new analysis of Milgram’s work by independent researcher Nafsika Athanassoulis (living in Berlin, Germany), obedience rates varied considerably depending on the specific conditions of the experiment. And rather than supporting a situationist approach, namely that anyone would deliberately harm someone if ordered to do so, she believes that “rather than confirming the situationist claim… [it]… offers evidence of dispositions affecting behavior."

Moreover, although most people conclude that Milgram’s work reveals that the “gross immorality” of harming another human being can be prompted by a “tiny factor” such as whether the Experimenter was wearing a gray coat and carrying a clipboard, the factors that produce this immoral behavior aren’t tiny at all. Instead, she frames the Milgram experiments as studies of “obedience under pressure.” As she goes on to explain, “Milgram also knew from earlier runs of the experiment that participants would feel tension at hurting innocent others and he needed mechanisms to defuse this tension before it stopped the participants from obeying” (p. 64). Friendships were one of those “defusing” mechanisms.

Friendships as Defusing Dispositions

Before examining how Milgram used friendships to see if he could reduce obedience, it’s important to see how a close relationship could alter the behavior of participants in this experiment. Although you may not think of it as a disposition (i.e., an enduring trait), Athanassoulis argues that this is precisely how a friendship should be characterized. Friendships are special relationships that occur because you and your friend share particular qualities, and these relationships persist because you nurture and value them. You don’t become friends, in other words, with just anybody.

Quoting previous authors, Athanassoulis notes that friendship is “a long-term project which has a very characteristic nature” (p. 69). This bond also carries with it a high degree of trust and acceptance of the fact that your friend will “actively shape your character.”

As dispositions, then, a friendship should influence the way you interpret and react to situations. You’re not just thinking about yourself, you are thinking about ways that a situation could influence your friend. No matter how much pressure someone places on you to betray or harm your friend, this disposition should allow you to stand firm in ensuring that your friend is protected.

How Did Friendship Affect the Milgram Experiments?

Returning to the Milgram experiment, the limits of friendship indeed were tested in one specific condition whose results only became known when Yale University opened the lab’s archives. Known as the Relationship Condition (RC), or Condition 24, the Teacher and Learner were selected because they had been friends for at least two years (e.g. neighbors, in-laws, and coworkers).

Compared to the 65 percent obedience rate typically reported for the Milgram experiments (which didn't occur across the board), the RC produced an obedience rate of 15 percent. Milgram’s notes about the RC state that this is “as powerful a demonstration of disobedience than [sic] can be found” (p. 63). There were a few reports of these RC results in the published literature, following its discovery in the Yale archives, but its results are rarely discussed, and are completely overlooked in textbooks that cover this area of social psychology.

The debriefing of participants showed just how important friendships were in affecting their decision not to obey the Experimenter’s instructions. One Teacher tried to help the Learner by emphasizing the correct answers, and stopped well before reaching the maximum number of “volts” issued as punishment. Another refused to continue, stating that “It may be important to you but not that important to me—for friendship—anyway” (p. 70). Another simply stated that “This is my neighbor,” with no further explanation. Another spoke of a “horrible feeling” associated with letting down a friend with whom he has a longstanding relationship.

In the most extreme example of disobedience, though, it was actually one Experimenter who quit the study. “Tracy, operating under real” (i.e., not scripted) “conditions of authority, that is being employed and paid to do as his boss asked, defied authority for a friend” (p. 73).

The Good News About Friendship

As you can now see, people will avoid bending to authority if it means betraying or harming a friend. If you put yourself in the position of the Milgram Teachers, perhaps you could understand why they reacted as they did. Returning to the example of needing to change your plans to help out your friend, perhaps you also decided that you wouldn’t think twice before stepping in to take on childcare duties if it will offer needed relief. If friendships trump situational factors, then this means that the “special relationships” you have with these people whose lives are intertwined with yours are likely to have become a part of the fabric of your personality.

The flip side to this is that you can also use the Athanassoulis paper to gain greater insight into the meaning that your relationship has to your friends. They, too, have deeply incorporated your longstanding partnership into their own way of understanding and reacting to the world. You are a person of value to them, and if it’s a true friendship, they will prevent you from harm.

To sum up, friendships are important relationships for reasons that you may not even completely appreciate. As a source of fulfillment, they may be hard to beat.

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Athanassoulis, N. (2023). The Milgram experiment no one (in philosophy) is talking about. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 43(2), 61–75. doi: 10.1037/teo0000200

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