Milgram Revisited: Great News for Humanity

Chances are better than even that at some point in your life you’ve heard something of the experiments of Stanley Milgram.  In the 1960s, he conducted experiments into the willingness of people to hurt other people simply because a person of authority (in this case, the researcher) was instructing them to do so.

In the experiment, the subject was at the controls of what the researcher said was an electric-shock machine and was instructed to administer progressively more painful punishments to another subject (actually an actor) who kept answering questions incorrectly.  Milgram’s finding was that around 65% of people would continue with the shocks until the machine was maxed out if told to do so.

Well, not so fast:

“While Milgram reported on the amount of shock that subjects were prepared to administer he suppressed data that gives us insights into why people behaved the way they did. Our study shows that the believability of the experimental scenario was highly variable, contrary to Milgram’s claims and that it affected subjects’ behavior. Some subjects were convinced the learner was receiving painful shocks, others were sceptical and suspicious.”

“Our analysis shows that people who believed the learner was in pain were two and a half more times likely to defy the experimenter and refuse to give further shocks. We found that contrary to Milgram’s claims, the majority of subjects in the obedience experiments were defiant, and a significant reason for their refusal to continue was to spare the man pain,” [study author Gina] Perry said.

It remains disturbing that so many people would be so willing to hurt others.  Of course, it’s even more disturbing to realize that we can’t really know which group we’d be in until faced with such decisions ourselves.

Awareness is power, however, and we can and should condition ourselves to be better people by conscious design.  Other experiments present an opportunity to prepare ourselves by affirming that human beings look to each other to understand norms of behavior.  My favorite of these is actually by inverse.

Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University used two different signs to dissuade visitors to the Petrified Forest National Park.  One attempted to guilt people out of stealing petrified wood from a national park by saying, “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.”  Another said, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.”  On the path with the first sign, nearly 8% of wood the experimenters had placed on the ground was taken; on the path with the second sign, less than 2% was taken.

This applies to matters that are less easy to make light of.  In a coda to a related paper, Cialdini and coauthors note that warning people away from things like eating disorders, suicide, and drinking by presenting testimony from others who’ve engaged in the behavior or by mention what a huge problem it is can make it seem more plausible.  Today’s Newport Daily News, for example, has on its front page a story with the headline and lede, “What can be done? Since 2010, there have been more than two dozen suicide deaths on Newport County bridges” (emphasis in original).  Per Cialdini’s research, this well-meaning headline might actually make suicide more likely.

But to return to the positive:  The photograph accompanying that story is of a sign near the Mt. Hope Bridge telling people to call the Samaritans if they need somebody to talk to.  The name of that organization, of course, comes from the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, who helped a person in need along the road.  People who help others increase the social norm to do good.

Just as telling people that a lot of visitors to a park take petrified wood chips gives them the impression that it’s normal to do so, making it more broadly understood that many people help others can make that the norm, too.

Helping, through our own attitudes, to create the expectation that people don’t hurt other people might inoculate us even when an authority figure is instructing us to.


Featured image: From Eugene Delacroix’s The Good Samaritan (1849).

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