The Surprisingly Hopeful Upside of the Milgram Experiments

Nowadays there are certain hoops you have to (rightfully) jump through when you want to conduct a psychological experiment involving human participants. The impetus for those hoops are a couple of infamous experiments that most people who have taken an introduction to psychology class will be familiar with. One of those infamous experiments was conducted by an individual named Stanley Milgram.

Milgram was interested in the phenomenon of authority and whether people would follow orders even when it went against their own moral code or values. To test this phenomenon, he set up an experiment where a participant would be given the task of trying to teach another individual. When the learner got an answer wrong, the participant was instructed to flip a lever that administered a shock to the learner. There was a series of levers in front of the participant that were clearly labelled with increasing amounts of voltage. What the participant didn't know was that the learner was actually an actor and they weren't truly being shocked. It sure sounded and looked like it, though.

Milgram wanted to see how far people would go in shocking the learner. At the highest few levels of voltage the learner would be screaming and begging the participant to stop shocking them. Eventually, they would go silent, giving the impression they passed out or even died from the shocks. Milgram would be in the same room as the participant and wearing his official looking white lab coat. When a participant would experience unease Milgram would use the following four cues:

  • Please continue.
  • The experiment requires that you continue.
  • It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  • You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. 

The results are very well known and quite distressing. The vast majority of people who participated in the experiment went all the way to the end, delivering the most violent shock three times in succession.  At this point it would appear that the learner had passed out, or possibly even died.

The Milgram Experiment, With a Twist

All of this is actually to set up what I really wanted to talk about and something I wasn't aware of until a few weeks ago. Milgram did many different replications and variations of this study. While Milgram's overall study a very distressing look at the human mind and what pain we are willing to inflict upon each other even with a relatively minor amount of official pressure, there was one variation that is incredibly hopeful.

In this variation the participant would be sitting in a waiting room while the person before them finished up the experiment. However, this "participant" was actually an actor and his role was to refuse to go on with the experiment once he realized he was "hurting" another human being (who, remember, was also an actor). When it was the actual participant's turn to be in the study the likelihood of them continuing all the way to the end dropped substantially. Apparently, seeing someone else be willing to stand up for what's right emboldened the participant to do the same thing. Whereas 65 out of 100 participants went all the way to the end and administered the massive shock in the original experiment, when there was an example of someone standing up and refusing to go further only 4 out of 40 went all the way to the end.

Positive Deviance: Do You Have It?

I don't want to beat you over the head with the implications of this because I think they're pretty clear. Where can you stand up and be a positive example to someone today? It's pretty clear we are constantly  scanning our environments for cures about how we're supposed to act. What kind of positive cues can you provide for your kids, your friends, your colleagues, or your employees? What status quo rubs you the wrong way and what small thing can you do to show others it's okay to feel, speak, or act in the opposite direction?

In one of the most eye-opening and distressing psychological experiments of all time there is a dollop of hope. You can be the domino that starts a positive chain reaction. In a world of conformity a few conspicuous non-conformists can have a huge impact. Is that you?

* I heard this story during a talk given by Dr. Phil Zimbardo in November of last year. That name might be familiar because of an eerily similar experiment he did...