16 March 2010

Milgram and Circuses

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:28 am

I thought this was sensational.

It’s not just that the findings of the Milgram Experiment have been replicated in contemporary times, now that blind obedience to authority and trust in technocrats have presumably gone the way of the Cold War — that replication has already been done. In this re-enactment the authority figure isn’t a nerdy lab-coated scientist but an attractive game-show host. And this time the would-be torturers aren’t acting under the cloak of experimental secrecy; they’re performing in front of a live, and lively, studio audience.



  1. As someone who works in advertising and marketing, I have a somewhat different slant on this. I wonder how my academic friends, whose research is now restricted by rules governing use of human subjects, will keep up with corporate researchers, as well as entertainers, whose research is not subject to the same sorts of restrictions.


    Comment by John McCreery — 16 March 2010 @ 7:26 pm

  2. Hi John. Obviously those academicians need to become entertainers. Or perhaps if they want to study torture they should get contracts with the CIA, which probably allows quite a bit more leeway in such matters, even if it does impose a few more restrictions on publishing the findings. The Milgram study, though a classic, was a rather nasty bit of business: I think such a study shouldn’t be allowed on campus. By saying the TV show is “sensational” I meant “causing a sensation,” as in a sensational crime. Still, the premise is clever and the results are distressing. I would certainly watch the TV program if I had the opportunity.


    Comment by john doyle — 16 March 2010 @ 8:47 pm

  3. I said this was a different slant. To me the specifics of the case, here torture, are less interesting than an issue that now regularly confronts my fellow anthropologists. That is, rules constructed in a medical context where outcomes include life and death are being bureaucratically applied to exploratory research that requires a combination of openness and adaptability in what may be, at the start, entirely unpredictable circumstances. Research whose value often depends on discoveries never anticipated in the original research design is being treated as if it were a scientific experiment in which everything were under control. Obsessive rule following is given a higher priority than trust in common sense moral judgment. I find myself wondering what the world would look like if the same rules applied to academics, entertainers and members of the CIA.


    Comment by John McCreery — 17 March 2010 @ 12:19 am

  4. I guess I’m still not understanding the slant. Just to recap, Milgram’s study was a controlled experimental test of particular hypotheses and the study design afforded an appropriate test of those hypotheses. However, the experimental conditions exposed subjects to psychological risk; i.e., that they might feel considerable emotional stress during the study, and that they might feel badly about themselves afterward. These adverse consequences could have been anticipated beforehand by the researcher or study reviewers. Did the potential gain in knowledge offset the potential psychological harm it could inflict on participants? Nowadays the answer would be “no.” I think this is the right ethical move. Of course any study could possibly have unexpected adverse effects on participants, so it’s always going to be a judgment call. But to trick subjects into thinking that they might have punished someone to death simply on orders from a scientist or game show host? That self-awareness would almost surely be painful, even if it is self-enlightening. Is one justified in tormenting people for their own good? No, I’d say pretty clearly not — ordinary life provides most of us with such experiences already.

    Replicating the study in an academic setting these days requires that the experiment be stopped at the point where the voltage being supposedly applied to the confederate would actually inflict physical pain. Beyond that point results are extrapolated: if the subject would go that far in following orders, they would almost surely go farther. And in fact these results were found in the original study, and in the French TV show: every subject who got to the point of inflicting pain went all the way on cranking up the voltage. So limiting the study is a reasonable caution that wouldn’t affect the results but that might protect the self-image of participants — even if that self-image might be worth challenging.

    I think the world would be a kinder but less interesting place if the same rules applied to the CIA and entertainers. I found the Milgram study to be informative, cruel, and entertaining — a perfect combination for reality TV. How about you, John: do you think the benefits of Milgram’s study and its replication for TV outweigh the possible harm done to a few individuals?

    But you’re referring to studies conducted without clear hypotheses or means of testing them. In psych research the ethics criteria consist of general guidelines, but each study must be reviewed on its own merits. Decisions are made based on common-sense moral judgment, guided by the guidelines, applied to the specific case. Do things work differently in anthropology? In your field are there particular kinds of obsessive rule-following precautions that seem to override common sense and that get in the way of discovery?


    Comment by john doyle — 17 March 2010 @ 5:15 am

  5. The Milgram study offers good self-reflexive value in the rules versus ethics debate. Common ethical sense led 80% of the “research assistants” to administer lethal levels of electric shock in the name of scientific discovery.


    Comment by john doyle — 17 March 2010 @ 6:16 am

  6. On a bit of tangent… In 2008 our daughter wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo. One of the main characters was a Joker-like figure named Domino who staged a replication of the Milgram Experiment. The subjects, already familiar with the study, knew it was a fake, so they cranked up the amps to the max. But Domino tricked them: the electrodes really were connected, the juice really was flowing, and the subjects really did punish their victims to death.


    Comment by john doyle — 18 March 2010 @ 7:15 am

  7. Ouch.


    Comment by johnmccreery — 18 March 2010 @ 7:36 am

  8. P.S. What is NaNoWriMo?

    P.P.S. Is your daughter an only child, like mine?


    Comment by johnmccreery — 18 March 2010 @ 7:37 am

    • Yes, an only child. NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, held every November. I tried it last year but didn’t get very far. Our daughter was a high school sophomore at the time she wrote this book. The minimum length is 50,000 words: somehow she managed to crank out 1700 words per day after school and homework to get it done. It’s quite good too, with a body count of about a hundred as I recall.


      Comment by john doyle — 18 March 2010 @ 7:49 am

      • Impressive. What’s your daughter up to now?


        Comment by johnmccreery — 18 March 2010 @ 7:58 am

      • Whatever juniors in high school are up to, I suppose. And your daughter?


        Comment by john doyle — 18 March 2010 @ 8:05 am

  9. Was four when we came to Japan in 1980. Grew up here. Went to a local kindergarten and elementary school through third grade, then switched to international school. When she graduated in 1994, her parents suggested that she go to college in the States and do something challenging. We were thinking Duke, Georgetown, maybe Ivy League. Boy did she surprise us: Annapolis, Class of ’98, Navy helicopter pilot, veteran of two deployments to the Middle East, married to a Marine Corps jet fighter jock she met at Pensacola. She’s out of the Navy now. Has two kids, boy three going on four and girl one going on two and is in her second semester of a two-year MPP (Master of Public Policy) program at the Kennedy School at Harvard. Then, who knows? You’ve just told me about your work with veterans. She just sent us an email saying that she has been offered an internship with the Senate Veterans Affairs committee. The world, and kids, move in mysterious ways.


    Comment by johnmccreery — 18 March 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    • Wow, that is quite a pathway. Helicopter pilot can be dangerous duty too.


      Comment by john doyle — 18 March 2010 @ 7:28 pm

      • We still remember the day when she called home and told her mother, “Guess what I learned today. Helicopters are unstable in all three dimensions.” The good news turned out to be that, being in the Navy, she was mostly flying over water. Her most exciting day was pulling a couple of downed pilots out of the Persian Gulf.


        Comment by John McCreery — 18 March 2010 @ 9:05 pm

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