Milgram Study Results Shouldn't be Shocking
Published on January 18, 2007 By greywar In Pure Technology

     This is a bit of old news but I keep seeing the Milgram shock study popping up in places like Slashdot, the Cato Institute blog, etc as though it was new and/or a surprising result. For those who don't know here is a summary:

     Milgram's study placed a test subject (you) into a situation where they were instructed by an authority figure to administer electric shocks of increasing intensity to another subject (actually an actor). The actor would play the part by twitching, screaming in pain, begging for stoppage, and eventually silence indicating death (mostly via pre-recorded audio).

     When the subject (you) would balk at continuing the test they would be given four verbal prompts to continue in increasing sternness. If they resisted all four exhortations, the experiment ended.

     The result? 65% of the subjects continued right to the bitter end administering 450 volt shocks o the actor. No one quit before 300 volts.

     One of the first things I learned about accident scene management was to take charge and sound like I knew what I was doing no matter what. This allows emergency responders to command obedience from people who would otherwise freeze up. Tell someone to "Get an ambulance!" in the right tone of voice and you just gained a very obedient follower for the duration of the incident.

     I am not sure why people find this difficult to believe. Perhaps they simply have never thought about the natural human response to authority, but the facts are that early humans who didn't take direction from tribe leaders wouldn't propagate at the success rates of those who took orders well. In fact groups with problems taking authoritarian direction would likely have died out en mass.

     Additionally the authority figure in the experiment was of limited charisma and very limited as far as motivational freedom goes (only allowed to use the 4 exhortations). I have written extensively in the past about my frighteningly charismatic friend: Vince Colangelo (Google for 'em... there are too many to link), and had Vince been the authority figure in this experiment I submit that the figure would be closer to 75% even within the experiment rules.

    Further if you allowed Vince 10 minutes of preparatory chat work with each subject and gave him the freedom to ad lib the verbal exhortations to action, I contend that the rate of completion would have topped 95%. Individual subjects may have hated Vince after the fact, but most would still have done what he asked.

    People crave the absolution of individual morale imperative that authoritarian figures can grant them. It isn't new or even surprising. Most find it much easier to do what you are told than to determine their own course. Most of you reading this are in the same boat no matter what you tell yourself...

    Just think how difficult your life would become if you actually broke all (or even many of) the rules like the rebel you think you are. Within days or weeks society's disciplinary measures would have you outcast from most of your friends and co-workers, unemployed, and on the way to prison. Rule following (even seemingly cruel and arbitrary ones) by citizens is the mechanism that allows human civilization. It shouldn't be shocking that it can be used in ways that are immoral or cruel.

     It should be even less surprising that charismatic people have done so quite successfully in the past. We like it when people are certain of themselves and we love it when they take it to heights that most of us don't reach in our daily lives. Therein lies the popularity of people both good and bad : Kennedy, Clinton, Truman, Stalin, Hitler, Gandhi ... the list goes one forever. There are Alphas ad there are the rest of us. We may have our alpha areas or moments, but the fact is that most of humanity is composed of followers and not commanders.

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on Jan 18, 2007

Would it surprise you to know that a taser administers 50,000 volts?  And only stuns.  It does not kill.

Volts are the size of the fist.  They look bad and menacing, but the damage is done by the power behind the arm that swings that fist (in this case - the amps).

But I have seen the study before.  The original was trying to figure out how a whole nation could gas a people to death (just following orders mein Herr).  The results were shocking (no pun intended).

on Jan 18, 2007
I too sometimes use THE VOICE at work, and only for good of course, never evil. It always seems to work and that never ceases to amaze me. I am anything but assertive as a general rule. It would be interesting to know what those four commands in this study were.
on Jan 18, 2007

It always seems to work and that never ceases to amaze me.

It is especially effective from people seen as an expert in a field. I am not terribly assertive unless we are in a SIGINT discussion, in that situation people rarely even challenge me simply because I sound like there is no question that I know exactly what I am talking about (even when I am wrong).

It would be interesting to know what those four commands in this study were.

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

Would it surprise you to know that a taser administers 50,000 volts?

No I wouldn't but the point of the experiment had nothing to do with actual measurement of an electric shock. Most people are ignorant of the difference in electrical units and so they could have said that the subject would have received a shock equal to 20 mega-camels and it wouldn't have really mattered.

 

 

on Jan 18, 2007
I think I'd be asking, "Why the hell am I shocking this guy?"

If I got a satisfactory answer, then I might go ahead and do it.

~Zoo
on Jan 18, 2007
We may have our alpha areas or moments, but the fact is that most of humanity is composed of followers and not commanders.


I agree with statement. I too have seen a similar experiment and was amazed at how people just blindly followed orders and the voice of authority and more so when one or two actually looked like they were enjoying themselves by the end of the session.
on Jan 18, 2007
It's not surprising at all. Most people are sheep anyway. You know what they say, "100,000 lemmings can't be wrong".
on Jan 18, 2007

would have received a shock equal to 20 mega-camels and it wouldn't have really mattered.

Now that would have mattered!

on Jan 19, 2007
too have seen a similar experiment and was amazed at how people just blindly followed orders and the voice of authority and more so when one or two actually looked like they were enjoying themselves by the end of the session.


it's easy to do something, because someone else said so. And I do know that being cruel can be enjoyable. If someone allows your to ignore your sense of morality, or better, orders you to do so, it's easier to comply in order to experience that perverse enjoyment.

Just think how difficult your life would become if you actually broke all (or even many of) the rules like the rebel you think you are.


I wonder about this, though. I find that those who really believe that rules are ment to be broken, and do so consistently, fly under the radar of punishment for a long time. People say that they are unable to believe that specific instances actually did occur, but I think that most who state that, are also thrilled by it. We don't have such cruel forms of entertainment for nothin'.

Good article.
on Jan 19, 2007

I find that those who really believe that rules are ment to be broken, and do so consistently, fly under the radar of punishment for a long time

 

I usually also find that these people tend to break rules they have found to be breakable and tend to do so only when such breakage will be noticed by people they want to impress. In unobserved or earnest situations they are remarkable rules follwoers like everyone else. Rarely do people who decide that the speed limit is optional go for very long without paying a heavy toll for their actions.

I find most self proclaimed "rebels" to be poseurs desperately seeking attention through stunts. If no one watches and they fall right into line.

on Jan 21, 2007
Honestly, greywar, I think I would be part of the 35% that doesn't do the "shockey monkey" thing. Now, I may be wrong, but I don't think so.
on Jan 23, 2007
I heard about this study in college. We read that housewives were by far the largest group of participants who gave the highest shock.

Hmmmmm.
on Jan 23, 2007
I'd be shockin' them even if they DID answer the questions correctly

your a bad girl, dear. very, very bad and Simon is very very lucky  

This all remind's me of the "Quitters, Inc." segment of Steven King's "Cat's Eye" where James Wood's wife is getting shocked by Alan King so he'll quit smoking.
on Jan 23, 2007
Probably the reason you've been hearing about it again recently is that someone performed a virtualized version of the experiment (administering "shocks" to avatars in an on-line environment)...
Link
Link

on Apr 25, 2008
Interestingly, this experiment was condemned as unethical. Afterwards, the people realized what they would have done. But, I think everyone should have to go through this experiment, just so people are aware.
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