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Milgram at 50: Is It Time for a Rethink?

Monday, October 6, 2014 8:08 am EDT
"The lesson is that people are not programmed to follow authority: They make active choices and are accountable for their decisions."

New research suggests we may have been misinterpreting Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience. Those experiments, in which ordinary people were convinced to administer seemingly severe electric shocks to their fellow humans—created an uproar when they were first published 50 years ago. Then, and for decades afterwards, they were seen to imply that people do the bidding of those in authority without thinking about the consequences of their acts. Not only did Milgram’s experiments appear to expose an ugly truth about ourselves, they provide a compelling explanation of the seemingly inexplicable: How ordinary Germans could have participated in history’s greatest crime.

But what if we’ve been too quick to accept Milgram’s version of the events? What if it wasn’t the men in white lab coats that Milgram’s hapless subjects were obeying? New research in the Journal of Social Issues by psychologists S. Alexander Haslam, Stephen D. Reicher and Megan E. Birney find that it isn’t obedience that induces people to engage in questionable behavior, but rather a desire to participate in a worthwhile project.

Milgram’s experiments can never been replicated—no ethics panel today would ever allow it—so Haslam, Reicher and Birney developed an ingenious substitute. They gave participants a choice of five negative words to describe people whose onscreen image they were presented with. At first the images were of offensive groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, but they became successively more pleasant. As participants began to push back against choosing a negative epithet for nice people, they were given updated versions of Milgram’s original prods: a series of phrases used to induce participants to continue if ever they seemed reluctant.

“The results showed that the most successful prod wasn’t a command, but rather an appeal to engage in and advance a scientific experiment,” says co-author Haslam. “The lesson is that people are not programmed to follow authority: They make active choices and are accountable for their decisions.”

Elsewhere in the Journal, researchers use newly discovered archival findings and experimental methods to identify theoretical and empirical problems with Milgram's account. They find that, rather conforming naturally, people can and do disobey orders and that authorities need to work hard to secure consent. This work opens up a whole new set of vista of research on the issues of obedience and of disobedience to authority, and about the way people make their choices to conform or rebel.

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