If you’re even a little bit interested in scientific experimentation, you’ve probably heard of the Milgram experiment. Well, as it so happens, the results of the original experiment still apply today, with 90 percent of the participants of a new study willing to “electrocute” an innocent person just because they were told to do so.
“Half a century after Milgram's original research into obedience to authority,” the team of researchers write, “a striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual.”
This highly controversial trial, first conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram back in the very early 1960s, was originally based on the behavior of Nazi underlings. Milgram wondered if they were inherently evil or if they were just susceptible to following orders being handed down by an authoritarian figurehead.
In order to test this theory out, an observer – acting as an authoritative scientist – stands in a room with a willing participant, who is sat in front of a series of buttons and a microphone. They are then requested to ask the person on the other end of the microphone, the “learner,” a series of questions.
If the learner gets any of the questions wrong, the participant has to press the first button, which sends a small electric shock to the learner, who winces in pain. This continues, with the participant asking more questions and, each time one is incorrectly answered, a more powerful electric shock is sent to the learner.
British illusionist Derren Brown conducting the Milgram experiment a few years back. Derren Brown via YouTube
The learner, however, is not really being electrocuted. They’re actually a stooge placed into the experiment by the researchers, who are told to get certain questions wrong so the participant is mandated to “electrocute” them with increasing intensity. To make it seem more real, though, the participant is often given a very small, real electric shock to viscerally convince them.
The point of the experiment is to see how long the participant continues the experiment before they refuse to take part anymore. Some of them question what they are doing or protest to the observing “scientist,” who is instructed to keep telling them to continue.
You’d think, intuitively, most people would stop quite early on. Whenever this experiment has been conducted, however, the majority of the participants go through to the very end.
Thus, the theory goes, perfectly normal people commit to doing terrible things just because someone in a position of authority tells them to.
This new study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, was conducted in Poland in 2015, and is the first Milgram experiment to be carried out in Eastern Europe. The fact that 90 percent of participants went the whole nine yards is a worrying sign, but it’s worth noting that there was only 80 people taking part in the test – a small sample size, to be sure.
With authoritarianism once again on the rise, this infamous experiment is certainly pertinent. Will contemporary people do bad things because of an overbearing political influence? This new study seems to suggest they will.
There is one additional thing to highlight, however. The team, from Poland’s SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, found that “the number of people refusing to carry out the commands of the experimenter was three times greater when the [learner] was a woman.”
The political science behind authoritarianism. Vox via YouTube