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August 04, 2007

Milgram's other experiment

In my line of work, Stanley Milgram is best remembered for his small-world experiment. But in other circles, he's better known for his work on human obedience. This seminal study was done back when scientific brilliance was unfettered by pesky rules about ethics, but thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can share in his joyous discovery of how presumably good, or maybe at least "normal" (whatever that means), people can be made to do thing they know to be terrible when instructed by a superior. (In fact, it is partially because of this experiment that science now has an internal review mechanism to prevent such psychologically traumatic experiments from being conducted.) Here is Milgram writing in his 1974 article "The Perils of Obedience" (reproduced here) on the results of his study:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

posted August 4, 2007 04:04 PM in Scientifically Speaking | permalink


Hi Aaron,

You might find this interesting:

Posted by: Navin Goyal at August 11, 2007 09:00 PM

Yup, Zimbardo's famous prison experiment is another of the main reasons we have IRBs. His book The Lucifer Effect is high on my reading list (in fact, it's sitting on my coffee table right now, waiting for me...).

Posted by: Aaron at August 13, 2007 07:51 AM