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Researchers have replicated a notorious social experiment that claimed to explain the rise of fascism

Unsplash/Nakita Cheung
Electrocuting an innocent person seems absurd—turns out, it’s not.
By Leah Fessler
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Remember that study from psychology class where participants were willing to shock people with excessively high voltage, just because a researcher told them to?

Well, a new paper published March 14 just announced that the famous Milgram Experiment has been replicated in Poland over 50 years since its inception in the US. It’s been replicated before, but this is the first time any effort to do so has involved both men and women in shock-giving and shock-receiving roles. The goal: to evaluate whether participants are more or less likely to shock a woman than a man.

The social psychologists at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland were driven to undertake this project in part because of the “the unique history of the countries in the region” the authors write. Poland’s history of fascist German occupation, “made the issue of obedience towards authority seem exceptionally interesting to us.”

Unfortunately, they found that since World War II, people have remained, shall we say, shockingly compliant.

Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist who studied justifications for acts of genocide during the Nuremberg War Criminal Trials, began experiments on obedience in 1961, a year after Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. He sought to answer this question: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?”

Milgram tested how willing participants playing the role of a “teacher” would be to deliver increasingly intense electric shocks to a person playing a “learner,” at the encouragement of a researcher. Milgram’s participants—all men—believed they were shocking a real person, as recorded shouts of pain were played, though no one was actually shocked. This deception, and the psychological danger it subjected participants to, has incited extensive ethical criticism.

Milgram’s obedience experiments included many variations and over 700 participants—some of whom refused to inflict shock entirely, under any circumstance. But arguably the most famous version was Experiment No. 2, undertaken in 1974.

In No. 2, Milgram used a shock operator with 10 buttons, instead of the 30 used in his other experiments—in other words, it didn’t go to as high a shock level. Of the 40 participants in this experiment, 34—or 85%—were willing to administer level-10 shock. Milgram’s researcher then asked these 34 participants to use the 30-button operator, to see how high they’d go; 26 of the 34—or about 65%—went on to administer the potentially fatal level-30 shock.

This is also the experiment recently replicated in Poland—with a few key differences.

The SWPS social psychologists recruited 80 participants (40 men, 40 women), between 18 and 69 years old. Importantly, unlike previous Milgram replications, this study put women in the shock-receiving, or “learner” role. “We thought that shocking a woman with electricity is a more urgent violation of cultural norms than shocking a man with electricity,” Dariusz Doliński, a co-author of the study, writes via email. “Traditional European and North American norms (collectively ‘Western’) assume that men are obliged to behave nobly toward women, and thus to avoid causing them harm, both in word and in deed.”

In an effort towards a more ethical study design, the shock machine the Polish researchers used had only 10 buttons. And while participants in the recent Poland study believed they were shocking real people—the researchers exhorted them with prompts like “It is absolutely essential that you continue”—they also signed an informed-consent form stating that they could interrupt participation at any moment. The right to withdraw was not explicitly stated in Milgram’s experiments.

While the ethics of the methodology may have improved since Milgram, our willingness to obey has not. A striking 90% of participants were willing to shock the “learner” to level 10, the highest level in the experiment. These results align with those of Milgram’s 1974 Experiment No. 2.

Whether or not the gender of the “learner” mattered remains unclear. “Although the number of people refusing to carry out the commands of the experimenter was three times greater when the student was a woman, the small sample size does not allow us to draw excessively far-reaching conclusions,” the study explains.

Powerful as the results may be, this study, like all Milgram replicas, ought to be viewed skeptically. “One thing is certain,” the authors write in the study, “since the original experiments by Stanley Milgram, we have yet to find a successful way of reconciling realism with care for the wellbeing of study participants.”

Making participants deliver what they believe to be fatal shocks is clearly problematic, says Dave Nussbaum, an adjunct assistant professor of behavioral science at University of Chicago. And while this study used lower voltage levels to mitigate the potential psychological damage on participants, “that makes the results a bit less impressive, in that what they’re doing to the ‘learner’ is much less dangerous,” Nussbaum says.

Moreover, while Milgram explicitly attributed his findings to human obedience to authority, some psychologists question whether the study was really designed to study obedience, or whether, unbeknownst to Milgram, it was actually gauging other factors, like participants’ willingness to “help science;” this study does little to resolve these debates. And while Milgram’s experiments have been replicated many times, most have been in industrialized Western cultures, so we should be cautious before assigning universal social traits.

Ultimately, the most jarring element of this study is not that people are willing to electrocute an innocent human being just as frequently today as in post-WWII America—it’s that we expect humanity to behave differently. The painful cognitive dissonance is that we never think that we (and our loved ones) would ever obey inhumane demands—but if the majority of participants are willing to, that means we (and our loved ones) probably would, too. Social situations clearly influence and direct our behavior, sometimes for the worst. So the big takeaway question, relevant in today’s political climate more than ever, is this: How can we resist?

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