Egged on by authority, people will torture others

December 20th, 2008 - 3:23 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Dec 20 (IANS) A chilling new study affirms what one of the most controversial behavioural experiements had borne out 50 years ago - that people are just as willing to torture others when egged on by an authoritarian figure.Jerry M. Burger, who replicated one of the famous obedience experiments of the late Stanley Milgram, found that compliance rates were only slightly lower than those found previously.

Significantly, he found no difference in the rates of obedience between men and women, then and now, when it came to the question of administering powerful electrical shocks to others.

“People learning about Milgram’s work often wonder whether results would be any different today,” said Burger, professor at Santa Clara University.

“Many point to the lessons of the Holocaust and argue that there is greater societal awareness of the dangers of blind obedience. But what I found is the same situational factors that affected obedience in Milgram’s experiments still operate today.”

Stanley Milgram was an assistant professor at Yale University in 1961 when he conducted the first in a series of experiments in which subjects - thinking they were testing the effect of punishment on learning - administered what they believed were increasingly powerful shocks to another person in a separate room.

An authority figure conducting the experiment prodded the first person, who was assigned the role of “teacher” to continue shocking the other person, who was playing the role of “learner.”

In reality, both the authority figure and the learner were in on the real intent of the experiment, and the imposing-looking shock generator machine was a fake, said a Santa Clara release.

Milgram found that, after hearing the learner’s first cries of pain at 150 volts, 82.5 percent of participants continued administering shocks; of those, 79 percent continued to the shock generator’s end, at 450 volts.

In Burger’s replication, 70 percent of the participants had to be stopped as they continued past 150 volts - a difference that was not statistically significant.

“Nearly four out of five of Milgram’s participants who continued after 150 volts went all the way to the end of the shock generator,” Burger said.

“Because of this pattern, knowing how participants react at the 150-volt juncture allows us to make a reasonable guess about what they would have done if we had continued with the complete procedure.”

Milgram’s techniques have been debated ever since his research was first published. As a result, there is now an ethics codes for psychologists and other controls have been placed on experimental research that have effectively prevented any precise replications of Milgram’s work.

“No study using procedures similar to Milgram’s has been published in more than three decades,” according to Burger.

Burger implemented a number of safeguards that enabled him to win approval for the work from his university’s institutional review board.

Participants were told at least three times that they could withdraw from the study at any time and still receive the $50 payment.

Also, they were given a lower-voltage sample shock to show the generator was real - 15 volts, as compared to 45 volts administered by Milgram.

Burger’s findings are scheduled for publication in the January issue of American Psychologist. It includes a special section reflecting on Milgram’s work 24 years after his death on December 20, 1984, and analysing Burger’s study.

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