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A Classic Experiment

Entry 1038, on 2009-06-22 at 21:50:32 (Rating 2, Science)

Many years ago when I was a student I majored in computer science (of course) and psychology. Computing was a new and exciting field at the time (maybe even more than it is now) so that was an interesting subject but psychology was also fascinating: especially paranormal psychology and social psychology.

The lecturer for paranormal psych was excellent. He had studied some of the more well known psychics and other people who claimed to have special abilities (for example Uri Geller who was very popular at the time) and I think that might have been a major factor which lead me to skepticism and atheism.

I also found some of the social psych experiments interesting. My favourite (and a favourite for many people who have studied psychology) was the Milgram experiment, a classic published in an article titled "Behavioral Study of Obedience" published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1963 by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University.

The reason I mention this rather obscure piece of social science history is that I listened to a podcast about it today. One of the interesting points was that the experiment could not be repeated today because it wouldn't get past an ethics committee. Even at the time it was controversial and Milgram left Yale because of this.

But I haven't described the experiment yet, so here it is...

People were recruited to sit in a room equipped with some electrical controls. They were instructed to ask the subjects of the experiment in another room questions and give them a shock if they got it wrong. The idea was to see if they could improve their learning through punishment. Each wrong answer was punished with a bigger shock until many begged for the shocks to stop. But the people running the experiment told the subjects to continue giving the shocks and most did.

But that wasn't the real experiment of course because the people being shocked (who weren't being shocked at all and were just acting) were really working with the experimenters. The real subjects were the people giving the (fake) shocks and the real purpose of the experiment was to see if people would do what they were told to do even when they knew it was wrong.

Only about a third of the subjects refused to give out all of the shocks, even up to the "lethal" level where the person being shocked had (fake) convulsions or blacked out. The rest continued to the end of the experiment.

This seemed to show that people would respond to authority figures by acting in a way they never would otherwise. This was used to explain the immoral behaviour of people in tyrannical regimes like Nazi Germany. Of course, its overly simplistic to say that this is the reason everyone behaves badly but it no doubt explains some of the behaviour of some people.

There was undoubtedly some trauma involved for the subjects (I mean the real subjects here, the ones pressing the buttons, not the ones getting the fake shocks) and that's why it could never happen today but is that fair?

Some of the subjects reported gaining an insight into their own behaviour which helped them avoid similar situations in real life. That sounds like a good thing. And the experiment did reveal interesting aspects of human behaviour and that is valuable too.

I suspect there are many more traumatic events in most people's lives which are more negative and which don't create some good in balance, so why can't experiments like this still happen? As long as the subjects were told they might be deceived and might experience some mild stress or anxiety I don't think there's a problem.

Social psychology experiments today don't seem to be as interesting although experimenters are now forced into using even more subtle techniques which are intriguing in themselves. Still, ethics committees are a definite barrier to cool experiments!

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