Infamous 1960s Study Repeated: How Far Would You Go to Obey Authority?

experimenter, milgram experiment
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In an infamous series of experiments first conducted in the 1960s, Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist, asked study participants to deliver painful electric shocks to other people.

The shock was not real, but the people in the study didn't know that.

Milgram found that the study participants were willing to deliver the shocks, as long as an authority figure asked them to do so. [Bone-Chilling Science: The Scariest Experiments Ever]

The Milgram experiment, as it is now called, was considered a turning point in social psychology and the science of obedience.

In a new study from Poland, a group of researchers wanted to see if the premise held up. That is, 50 years later, would people still respond to an authority figure in the same way as they did in Milgram's original experiment?

"Upon learning about Milgram's experiments, a vast majority of people claim that 'I would never behave in such a manner,'" study co-author Tomasz Grzyb, a social psychologist at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland, said in a statement. In other words, people think that they would say no to an authority figure who ordered them to shock a person.

In the new study, the researchers noted that the Milgram experiments had never been conducted in central European countries, which were once a part of the Soviet Union. The leaders of the region placed people there under communist rule and demanded "strict obedience to authority," making the region a good place to test such obedience, the researchers wrote in the study. The research was published today (March 14) in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

In the study, the researchers designed an experiment that was similar to original Milgram experiments. They recruited 40 men and 40 women, who were all unfamiliar with the original experiments. The participants were told that the experiment was focused on "the impact of punishments on learning and memory processes," according to the study.

In the experiment, each person was paired up with an actor and asked to select slips of paper that would dictate each person's role. Both of the slips said "teacher," but in each case, the actor announced that his or her slip said "learner." The learner's job was to memorize certain associations between syllables: The teacher was given syllables to read, and the learner was supposed to reply to each syllable by giving a specific answer.

At this point, the participant was then told that she or he could stop the experiment at any point, but would still be paid for the time.

Revisiting the Milgram experiment

The experiment took place in two neighboring rooms. In one, the learner/actor was hooked up to electrodes, to give the study participant the impression that the learner would be shocked. In the other room, the participant (who thought he or she was taking on the role of the "teacher") was given levers to control, and told that the levers determined the intensity of the shock that the "learner" would receive.

The teacher was told to administer an electronic shock to the learner whenever the learner made a mistake. Prerecorded screams of pain played when the shock was delivered, according to the study.

As the experiment proceeded, the teacher was told to increase the intensity of the shocks with each subsequent mistake that the "learner" made. The screams also became more intense, but if the teacher seemed to hesitate to administer a shock, the experimenter would prod the individual with comments, such as, "Please continue," "It is absolutely essential that you continue," or "You have no choice — you must go on."

Just after the teacher pressed the last button, the experimenter asked, "Do you think it hurts?"

The researchers found that 90 percent of the participants were willing to press the 10th lever in the experiment — that is, deliver the strongest shock to another individual.

"It is exceptionally interesting that in spite of the many years which have passed since the original Milgram experiments, the proportion of people submitting themselves to the authority of [the] experimenter remains very high," the researchers wrote.

However, the researchers also noted that when the person being shocked was a woman, people were three times more likely to refuse to obey the experiment and deliver the shocks. Because the sample size was small, though, the researchers were unable to say if this was a statistically significant finding or due to chance.

The researchers noted the the experiment was approved by an ethics commission. In addition, after the experiment was completed, each participant individually went through a "detailed and painstaking debriefing" with a clinical psychologist, according to the study. "During this debriefing, [the] participants were told of the details of the procedure, apologized [to] for being deceived at the start of the experiment … and received an explanation of why it was done in that way," the researchers wrote. The participants were also told that they could contact the researchers at any point after the study if they still had questions or concerns.

Overall, the new findings suggest that society has not changed much in since Milgram first conducted his experiments, the researchers said.

"Half a century after Milgram's original research into obedience and authority, a striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual," Grzyb said.

"In summary, it can be said that such a high level of obedience among participants, very similar to that attained in the 1960s in the original Milgram studies, is exceptionally fascinating," the researchers wrote.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.