Just Doing My Job

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The ABC News show Primetime recently replicated the famous experiments of Stanley Milgram, the Yale psychologist who tested to see how many volts of electricity his test subjects would apply to a stranger if asked to do so by an authority figure. 

The results were nearly as scary as Milgram's.  

Article here .  Video here

Hat tip:  Tim Lynch

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  1. Instructor: I want you to get in this helicopter and go out there and shoot some Al Quedas.

    Gunner: What if they are not Al Quedas?

    Instructor: the Sudanese said they are.

    Gunner: Sounds good to me. Who am I to doubt the Sudanese?

  2. i hate primetime and all similar shows; they’re paced so slowly that anyone with an IQ above 80 can’t help but scream “get to the fucking point!” at the tv. every single one i’ve ever suffered thru could be condensed into about 20 minutes. but, we don’t have cable, and occasionally i’m too exhausted to do anything productive instead, so we watched it monday.

    if anyone else watched it, were you struck by how stupid all the participants in that experiment were (well, the ones they bothered to show on tv)? first, no one had heard of the milgram experiement before? and second, the guy pretending to be in pain was so bad at faking it, especially when he monotoned his “i told you i had a heart condition” line, and the wimpy “authority” figure saying “it is absolutely essential that you continue the experiement” in a lifeless, bored tone, that i’m just amazed that anyone thought this was real. i wonder if (i mean, i hope that) there were dozens of people that realized what was going on, that abc just didn’t show?

    -cab

  3. I am not surprised by the lack of change.

    It is difficult, very difficult, to consistently apply morality to one’s actions. To do so in the face of authority is even more difficult.

    How many people posting to this website would do so if their situation were like that of Soviet Citizens in 1937?

  4. The question is, how many volts would I apply to an authority figure if asked by a stranger?

    Would I need to be asked in the first place?

    Hmmmmm….

  5. Sam Franklin, do you honestly believe that the Muslims committing the slaughter in Sudan *aren’t* affiliated with Al-Qaeda?

  6. Sam Franklin, do you honestly believe that the Muslims committing the slaughter in Sudan *aren’t* affiliated with Al-Qaeda?

    Of the Somalis killed recently by the US, I will know how many were Al Queda and how many were non-Al Queda when the US government reveals that info to me and not one second earlier.

    In the absence of knowledge I can only guess.

    If I make bad guesses and that is some kind of problem, then the government can cure that problem by releasing the information. they should. because people are too pliable and gullible, in th main, to be allowed to flounder in the guesswork world.

  7. aresen,

    i pray to my imaginary god that i don’t ever have to find out how honorable and moral i’d be if faced with a choice of doing the right thing or being shot. i know what i hope i’d do, but have no way of knowing.

    but the “authority” figure in the experiment was so pathetically not authoritative, that i’m pretty comfortable feeling morally and ethically and intellectualy and any other type of superior to the idiots they were testing.

    and don’t even get me started on the strip-searching mcdonald’s manager and employee the show discussed as well. being that dumb should be punishable by pithing.

    -cab

  8. vm,

    unfortunately, i AM at work, so viewing the video will have to wait until tonight.

    thanks for sharing whatever it is, tho.

    -cab

  9. (cab:
    it’s the Fox News scene from Idiocracy.)
    (got to see it when it was in Chicago for 20 minutes or so. There were scenes that were out of this world funny, some annoying parts, but on the whole, an enjoyable experience. Thumb’s up and recommended!)

  10. This effect was put beautifully into the context of war in Dave Grossman’s seminal book On Killing. Must read….

  11. barneca

    Haven’t viewed the program, just read the article.

    However, I think the point is that even well-educated people will do unacceptable things on the orders of even the slightest authority.

    I match this with a story ABC [?] did a couple of years back where the setup was that the subject had to act on his/her own to come to the rescue of someone who’d fallen and hurt himself. The only inhibition was that the other person in the room with the subject, the stooges, did nothing. The subject had to break out of the conformity of those around him to come to the rescue. The point was that, even to do something good, people found it difficult to be different from those around them.

    I know of the Milgram experiment and other similar experiments, so I’ve been able to “shake off” the inertia in a couple of very minor but similar situations, but I wonder how I’d behave if I wasn’t aware of the inhibiting effect of conformity.

  12. Editor: I want you to write that the Americans killed 30 children and 8 women in this airstrike.

    writer: What if they are not women and children

    editor: the man on the street said they were.

    writer: Sounds good to me. Who am I to doubt the man on the street?

  13. I like how even the article makes an appeal to authority. It says Milgram’s experiments were performed “at Yale University”. This is mostly not true as even Milgram didn’t want the prestige of the university to skew the results so he performed most of the experiments in non-descript office buildings off campus.

  14. All these experiments have ever done is prove how naive psychologists are. The participants, or at least a large percentage of them, figure out what’s going on and play along.

  15. All these experiments have ever done is prove how naive psychologists are. The participants, or at least a large percentage of them, figure out what’s going on and play along.

    Sounds plausible. Have interviews with participants supported this hypothesis?

  16. aresen,

    re: milgram re-enactment:

    it’s hard to describe if you didn’t see the program, but i can’t emphasize enough how… i can’t think of a clear, descriptive word… the best i can think of is how LAME the whole thing was. the doctor was les nessman-like, and the actor being shocked was far less believable than george bush reading his lines from the telepromter and trying to act like it’s spontaneous.

    re: experiment where someone’s fallen and needs help:

    i recall seeing or reading something similar to what you describe, and this doesn’t surprise me as much. maybe it says something uncomfortable about me, but i can imagine peer pressure being more convincing than orders from an authority figure. with peer pressure, at least there’s the illusion that you’re deciding what to do, based on how you think others will act. with an authority figure, my first instinct is “who the hell are you to tell me what to do?”.

    -cab

  17. Thoreau:
    No, having read milgram’s original papers on the subject, there wasn’t much evidence that any of the participants were just playing along. They believed it.
    Of course one could posit that all these people lied to the experimenters, but barring evidence that people systematically lie to psychologists, throwing out the whole discipline of experimental psychology, which would be the logical thing to do if you couldn’t trust anyone not to lie, simply because we aren’t comfortable with the results is a bit rash.

  18. robert,

    i can’t prove anything, but if they were playing along, they did a fantastic job of faking it. really marvellous acting, including acting slightly but not completely ashamed about it later. also, i’m not sure the natural reaction is to play along if you think you’re being played. if they were pretending, my faith in humanity is slightly restored, but it really didn’t look that way to me.

    actually, it did appear to me that two of them were acting for the hidden camera when they finally declined to continue, but i interpret that as proof that people that figure the game out wouldn’t keep pretending to be traumatized but keep flipping the switch.

    speaking of authority figures, if i don’t get back to work, i’m gonna get fired…

    -cab

  19. Thanks for the info, hunter.

    FWIW, I wasn’t suggesting that we shouldn’t trust experimental psychology. I was trying to say “OK, that sounds reasonable at first glance, but do you have any evidence to support it?”, to get at the point that having a reasonable-sounding hunch is not sufficient reason to disregard experimental data. You need more data.

  20. Sam Franklin is convincing me that I need no authority to apply high voltage to him.

    BTW, have you seen those neat new tiny stun guns?

  21. FWIW, if I were a participant and I figured out the experiment, I’d tell the experimenter that I know what’s going on. Mostly for the know-it-all thrill of saying “Hah! I figured out your game!”

  22. The 10th Level with William Shatner was a TV movie based on the Milgram’s work. I think it came out in the early 80s when I was studying this in a psychology class, IIRC.

    If you want to see something wacky, see that.

    What was the prison experiment where the student guards became so brutal to the student inmates? That was another one we studied a bit.

  23. stanford prison experiment.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment

    it was discussed on the primetime show too.

    -cab

  24. So, who still has faith in humanity?

    Anyone?

    Bueller?

    If so, why?

  25. The prison experiment mentioned by “Guy Montag” was conducted by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford in 1971. It is equally disturbing to the Milgram shock experiments.

    An understanding of Milgram and Zimbardo’s research made me hesitant to hold the guards at Abu Ghraib responsible for what happened. Command should have expected that type of outcome, based on all the available research. They are the ones that should have gone on trial.

    General Sanchez, in particular, should be doing most of the prison time those enlisted men received.

  26. Sam Franklin is convincing me that I need no authority to apply high voltage to him.

    Guy, I would gladly die in service of my anti-war stance here if I thought my case would get the publicity I deserve and hot headed defender of the military’s honor would get the punishment he deserved.

    Some things are worth dying for.

  27. “Some things are worth dying for.”

    UGH. I hate that phrase. While true in some rare circumstances, it is usually said by someone who is willing to kill you for his “thing worth dying for.”

  28. Jesus, Sam, get a grip.

  29. pj doland,

    why do we have to choose between the abu graib guards and their superiors going to jail? plenty of room for both. the fact that people are more likely to behave this way than most people would think is no reason to absolve them of responsibility. if free will means anything, it means you have to take responsibility for your actions, no matter what the social pressures.

    it’s not too far a step from saying the guards aren’t responsible to saying that people’s decisions need to be made for them, because they’re helpless in the face of social pressure.

    -cab

  30. Well, Sam, the good news is that martyrdom won’t be necessary if all you want is some more credibility for, um, whatever it is that you stand for.

    If you want more credibility for your um, cause, or whatever, you could just stop posting and let the grown-ups argue against the war without your “help.”

  31. Dr. T- In some less refined circles, what you just delivered to Sam Franklin is known as an Atomic Bitch Slap.

    Well done, sir.

  32. reason webmaster:

    you would be doing everyone a favor if you added a “delete my previous comment, because upon reflection i realize it makes me look ridiculous” button to the bottom of each comment page. i think we all might need it from time to time.

    -cab

  33. Thank you, Numero Seis.

    The webmaster would also be doing everybody a favor if “Sam Franklin” was kept away…

  34. Sam Franklin,

    I don’t want you to die! I want you to live a long, long time.

    If I run out of batteries I think plenty of the folks here will send more 🙂

  35. The webmaster would also be doing everybody a favor if “Sam Franklin” was kept away…

    NO WAY! Let Sam Franklin stay!

    A cause worth dying for……….

  36. Hey, Guy, could you do us all a favor and not stoop to the level of being a massive douchebag? I mean, “Sam” is a contemptible piece of human refuse, but I seem to recall that adults don’t advocate play-ground antics.

  37. And, yeah, I consider “I hope you live a long time so I can torture you with electricity” to be pretty playground.

  38. Between the “I’d gladly die to bring punishment on commenters I don’t like” and “I want to torture you with electricity”, this thread is getting pretty scary.

    Seriously. Guys, knock it off. Contrarianism and insults are one thing. (Hell, I’ve done both in ample amounts.) Death wishes, hints of revenge, and torture? Not so cool.

  39. just so i understand, calling someone a “massive douchebag” and someone else “a contemptible piece of human refuse” is NOT playground?

    possibility #1: you’re being ironic and i’m an idiot who didn’t get it.

    possibility #2: you’re being serious, and aren’t terribly bright, but will hide behind #1 to get out of it.

    -cab

  40. Cab – I think Dr. T, Timothy, and others have a more-or-less Ignore Dave W. Policy, and I’d guess that Timothy’s language stems from other disagreements with Dave W. (to quote “American Flyers”: “Well I’ll be a fig newton. I’m standin’ here with a [poster] with a past!”

    So it’s much closer to possibility #1 except that you’re not an idiot…

  41. I actually have a pretty sick sense of humor so I thought some of this was amusing rather that scary.

    But I also posted Saddam’s Cat, so maybe I need some brain cells rearranged myself.

  42. Sam Franklin, do you honestly believe that the Muslims committing the slaughter in Sudan *aren’t* affiliated with Al-Qaeda?

    Well, Saddam Hussein was, so I don’t see why those Sudanese shouldn’t be too.

  43. vm,

    very kind of you to assume the best, but i’m afraid i am, indeed, an idiot. until you said something and i looked at the signature tag, i didn’t realize sam was dave. if you need more proof, i just discovered 5 minutes ago that i no longer need to add a fake email address to my comment for it to get posted.

    still, guy’s a “massive douchebag”? seemed pretty harmless and even a little funny to me.

    anyway, i’ll follow your lead and assume it’s #1 as well.

    -cab

  44. Thoreau,
    I gathered that was what you were after, and you are right. The fact that most people on this thread have the common sense feeling that this was fake argues for the value of the research since it tends to falsify said hypothesis. I’m actually a little sad that after a century of genocides so many really don’t want to see that this sort of thing is quite real. I know that’s a near godwin, but the problem of genocide was very much present in Milgram’s thinking about these experiments.

  45. Yea, you guys got me. I don’t want to hurt anybody, I just like encouraging some people for my entertainment.

    Do not assume I am dropping the Evil Goon title though, it is the only thing I have gotten from SF that I like.

  46. hi hunter,

    not sure if you’re lumping me in with the “most people think it was fake” group or not; it seems to me like only one person here has said that.

    i’m not saying it was fake, and i’m not surprised that a lot of people will do terrible things based on peer pressure or submission to authority. i think the people that kept going really did keep going. i’m just amazed at how little “authority” it seemed to take, and how gullible people seemed to be in this one, particular primetime experiment. so much so, that i have to wonder if there were people who realized it was fake and were weeded out of the show, and possibly the statistics, in this one, particular experiment.

    doing an experiment in league with primetime doesn’t scream “academic credibility” to me.

    -cab

  47. re-reading my post, i see a poor choice of words on my part that might explain something.

    when i said “i have to wonder if there were people who realized it was fake” (this, of course, unfortunately occuring directly below where i said “i’m not saying it was fake”), what i meant was:

    i don’t think the experiment was “fake”, in that i do think that the subjects that were actually shown were real and not actors, and that they behaved the way they were shown to behave.

    when i say “people realized it was fake”, i meant people realized that the supposed victim was not actually being shocked.

    -cab

  48. if anyone else watched it, were you struck by how stupid all the participants in that experiment were

    No. I love to watch court shows, cops, crazy religious programming, the shopping channel, Time Life CD infomercials, all that shit. This is right up my alley, and of course I watched it.

    I’m a people watcher. And I’m around the other tail of the distribution all day. It balances me out somewhat.

  49. The webmaster would also be doing everybody a favor if “Sam Franklin” was kept away…

    I get threatened and you want me kicked off the board for giving an honest and heartfelt response to the physical threat.

    Maybe they should ban your ass instead.

    What do you think this place is Thoreau, http://www.inactivist.org?

  50. I remember seeing the original film of the experiment in HS and LOL along with the entire class. The instructors weren’t amused. Wait, maybe that was college. Wait, maybe I imagined the whole thing. That’s the trouble with CRS.

  51. Oh Sam, some people actually pay good money for what you are painting as a ‘physical threat’. Jeeze!

  52. So… I don’t care about all the bickering…

    I’m curious though. If this experiment was done right, I’d put money that self-identified Libertarians would be less willing to apply the high-level shocks. I’d really love to see a political breakdown of who is more willing to just go along with authority figures. Come on, I think such an experiment would boost our political clout…. who’s with me?

  53. andy_D,

    I am not falling for your jack-booted tricks.

    [turns stun gun on experimenter and zaps]

    Be gone with you before I shoot LASERS from my eyes!

  54. What I found most interesting was that while between 63% – 73% of test subjects went along with the authority figures’ instructions, roughly the same percentage of respondents to the readers’ poll (68.6%) claimed that they would not do so. I guess the test subjects were selected from the minority of humans who are capable of commiting evil unthinkingly.

  55. Yeah, they are kinda makin’ a drama out of our discussion. You never threatened to kill me in the first place. In the second place, offerring to die, as I did, is noble, not scary. I mean some whacko might kill me. I have a feeling our battle will remain one of words.

  56. I would like to see the experiment repeated with the psuedo victim played by a woman. I wonder if compliance rates would go down if participants thought they were shocking a female. I bet yes, significantly.

  57. “i can’t prove anything, but if they were playing along, they did a fantastic job of faking it. really marvellous acting, including acting slightly but not completely ashamed about it later.”

    Of course. If they admitted to acting, that’d invalidate their performance, so of course they’re going to play it to the hilt. “Candid Camera” is full of great performances like that; you just don’t know which ones they are.

    “also, i’m not sure the natural reaction is to play along if you think you’re being played. if they were pretending, my faith in humanity is slightly restored,”

    Interesting. Better that people play along to be part of a show, than if they play along if they don’t think it’s a show?

  58. barneca, that’s exactly the point. Nobody would be surprised at someone delivering a shock under the credible threat of a pointed shotgun and a “push the button or I’ll blow your ******* head off!!!’ What MAKES it interesting is that they acquiese to ‘ummm, go ahead m’kaaay’

    Bretinge: that or people are a lot braver in abstract when hiding behind a keyboard than they are in real life. (has NOBODY here ever been in an internet forum.. oh.. wait… nevermind)

    the results are as unsurprising now as they were then. ‘Authority’ goes to a great deal of trouble to teach people to comply to authority so we should be surprised when people do? That aside, it’s normal behaviour for herd beasts and, at a deep down level, we are.

    On the other hand, I don’t think this excuses the minions of evil. It just explains them.

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