New Milgram research

The Situationist Blog recently posted about an interesting new study on the human ability to inflict pain on others.

Dominic J. Packer, of Ohio State University, performed a statistical meta-analysis on several of the original Milgram experiments, in which experimental participants were asked to administer progressively severe electric shocks to another individual (the other person was in reality an actor who was not in fact receiving shocks). Despite the victim’s expressions of severe pain, pleas to be released, and, eventually, silence, over two-thirds of participants continued “shocking” the victim up to 450 volts. These participants were not sadistic or callous – in fact they usually showed signs of extreme distress – but were unable to resist the persistent directions of the researcher that the experiment “must” continue.Ethical concerns prevent psychologists from conducting this type of study again, at least not in the same exact form. However, Packer was able to statistically analyze eight studies that Milgram performed several years ago.

The meta-analysis indicated that of the participants who disobeyed, about 37% did so at 150 volts, which is when the “victim” first asked to end the study. Considering that there were 28 other potential moments where the participants could have stopped, this size of a cluster around 150 volts is very significant.

The other most common points of disobedience were at 315 volts, 300 volts, and 180 volts. However, although the overall level of disobedience varied across the eight studies, most of this variation happened at 150 volts, while the rate of disobeying at other points stayed largely the same across the different studies. Thus, a variation in the experiment that made people more likely to disobey, did so by making people more likely to disobey when the learner first asks to leave, not at some other point.

But wait, there’s more: psychologist Jerry Burger, of Santa Clara University, has recently replicated Milgram’s experiment. As I pointed out above, ethical rules prohibit psychologists from performing experiments identical to Milgram’s, so Burger’s experiment ended after the 150-volt mark. As in the original experiments, a great majority of the subjects administered the 150-volt shock – despite the victim’s request to leave – and would have been willing to continue had the experiment not been stopped.

Packer calls attention in his study to its potential implications in situations where potential victims have no recognized right to leave a particular situation, such as treatment of prisoners. Since participants did not seem to respond to escalating expressions of pain, it is not reasonable to expect interrogators to stop an interrogation practice when it appears to be too painful. But the study may be even more relevant to the treatment of people (especially children) with disabilities, whose protests to abusive treatment are frequently ignored and dismissed.

It could, for example, shed light on an incident where a prank phone call lead caretakers of children with disabilities to shock them dozens of times within a few hours. In that particular group home, electric shock was used as an “aversive therapy” for those children, authorized through a “substituted judgment” proceeding through which a judge decides that the child “would have consented” to the treatment were they competent to make such a choice. This is even worse than an interrogation situation, where victims’ requests to end interrogation are simply not respected; in the case of these children, at no point are the child’s protests and attempts to avoid the shock even considered the child’s own choice.

Alternately, we can imagine (rather optimistically) that in situations where people aren’t paying attention to requests to stop, they may compensate by paying attention to other factors. For example, the people who ended the experiment at 150 volts may have reasoned until that point that their victim was implicitly consenting to the shocks by not asking to be let free; these people may have been more attentive to other signals that it’s “time to stop” if they know the victim is unable to make such a request or have been told to disregard such requests as illegitimate or inauthentic. It may seem hard to imagine such a result given the widespread level of abuse against people with cognitive disabilities, but remember that even the Milgram experiments, the majority of participants ignored the requests of an apparently competent adult to end the experiment. Thus, even if people do begin focusing on other factors when their victims are unable (or have no right) to ask them to stop, we wouldn’t necessarily expect most people to actually stop. That said, I don’t if any studies have been done that would support or refute this theory.

Overall these two studies emphasize the vulnerability of people whose choices, even choices to avoid pain, are disregarded or seen as not really their own. Although the choices of even perceived “competent” choice-makers are often disregarded in the face of authoritarian pressure, it is respect for those people’s choices that seems most important in causing people to resist those pressures. Take away that respect, and hope of humane treatment could grow incresingly dim.

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Filed under Disabilities, Experimental Psychology, The Law as Applied to Weird People & Situations

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