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Psychological research, obedience and ethics
Psychological research, obedience and ethics

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1.3 The variations

The findings of Milgram’s original study highlighted the phenomenon of obedience, but it could not reveal what it is about the situation that made participants administer potentially lethal shocks to a fellow human being. To address this question Milgram carried out further research in which he introduced subtle variations to the original procedure. By examining the effects of these variations on levels of obedience, he was able to isolate specific aspects of the situation that might influence whether participants obey or not.

By the time Milgram completed his research in 1962 he had processed 800 people through nineteen variations of the original design. For instance, in one variation, Milgram introduced into the proceedings a dialogue about a heart attack. He wanted to see whether alerting the participants to the impact of the shocks on the ‘learner’s’ health might reduce obedience. Note that all other aspects of the original study were preserved. Interestingly, the conversation about the heart attack made no real difference. Twenty six out of the forty participants still continued to 450 volts, although those who stopped did so at a lower voltage with five stopping as soon as the ‘learner’ asked to be let out. So, the reference to the heart attack made those who disobeyed do so earlier, but it did not prevent the more obedient participants from going all the way.

Milgram also varied the proximity of the ‘learner’ and ‘teacher’. In one variation he put them in the same room, while in another he required the ‘teacher’ to hold the ‘learner’s’ arm down on a plate to receive the electric shock. This manipulation had a clear effect. Milgram found that the closer you place the ‘teacher’ to the ‘learner’, the fewer shocks the ‘teacher’ is likely to administer. Equally, the further you place the ‘learner’ away from the ‘teacher’, the less the impact their pleas are likely to have.

Equally crucial was the presence of the authority figure. In one variation, the ‘experimenter’ in the grey coat pretended to have to leave the experiment owing to some emergency and was replaced by a person in plain clothes, who was not a scientist. Only 20 per cent of participants went all the way and gave the ‘learner’ 450-volt shocks. Similar results were obtained when orders were given by phone. The physical presence of an authority figure was therefore crucial.

In another variation Milgram placed two ‘experimenters’ in the room. One told the participants to continue (as in the original study), while the other told them to stop. In this variation, all the participants stopped giving the shocks very early on. This showed that an absence of a clear authority figure reduces obedience.

Milgram also conducted a version of the experiment in which he placed a second ‘teacher’ in the room, although this one was a stooge instructed to obey until the end. In this variation all the participants went along with the confederate and shocked up to 450 volts! So the mere presence of another obedient ‘volunteer’ made all the participants go all the way.

One of the main conclusions of Milgram’s work was that under certain conditions involving the presence of authority, people suspend their capacity to make informed moral judgments and defer responsibility for their actions to those in authority. When people are in this particular frame of mind, the nature of the task that they are asked to perform becomes largely irrelevant, and the main determinant of their actions is the commands of the authority figure.