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The Milgram experiment and the professional predictions: What did Milgram see?

Image credit: Foto From the Milgram Experiment in https://behavioralscientist.org/how-would-people-behave-in-milgrams-experiment-today/

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Ana Suarez Sep 17, 2020
After WWII, Stanley Milgram conducted a very famous experiment aimed at investigating whether Germans were overtly obedient to authority - as this was a common explanation for the nazi atrocities in the 2nd world war. It is hypothesized that the teacher will obey the authority figure and inflict pain on the learner. The experiment studied if people would obey authority even if the instruction conflicts with their moral conscience.

Before the experiment, Milgram requested several mental health professionals and advanced students to estimate how many subjects would continue to obey even thinking they were inflicting extreme pain in another person.

The Psychologists and Psychiatrists that were polled by Milgram predicted that only a maximum of 3% of the subjects would finish the experiment (this is: administered the maximum of 450v electric shock) and the rest would excuse themselves at an early or middle stage.

The results reflected in the experiment were stunning: 65% of the candidates followed through the whole process even if hearing the ‘learners’ scream in pain.

There has been much methodological and ethical criticism of Milgram’s work even questioning its veracity although most of the replications of the experiment yielded similar results.

Why do you think the experts failed so loudly?

[1]Milgram's conclusions were published in Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (2005th ed.). Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

[2]Milgram, S. (1965). Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority. Human Relations, 18(1), 57–76. https://doi.org/10.1177/001872676501800105

[3]For a critical review of this experiment see Perry, G. (2013). Behind the shock machine: the untold story of the notorious Milgram psychology experiments. The New Press.

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Creative contributions

Unpopular opinion about humans

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Dragan Otasevic
Dragan Otasevic Oct 07, 2020
It is not nice to imply that people are innately cruel - possibly because whoever expresses this opinion opens themselves up for attacks of the "speak for yourself" type.

If we take a look at situations where humans cannot or are not obliged to be kind to each other, what do we see?

Cruelty toward peers comes easy to children. The younger they are the easier they engage in bullying. The older they get, the more socialized they become and cruelty reduces. Why is this? Could it be that as we grow older, we learn what is acceptable and gradually become accountable for our actions?

In times of riots, uprising, war people feel like they are suddenly free to do whatever they want. What do they often do? Beat others up, loot, rape, etc. Cruelty is back.

in situations where each person's accountability to be humane is turned off, some people go wild with cruelty. Are those sociopaths, psychopaths?

Did Miligram dissagree with the consensus of the experts at the time? I have to look into it

Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers:)

"Is it in your nature or nurture?"

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Anja M
Anja M Oct 08, 2020
As this title suggests, it seems that behind Milgram's and similar experiments lies the never-ending question of innate and aquired tendences, in this case, perhaps the innateness for doing good or not.
However, why the experiments failed the expectations is another topic ruminated upon much.
I will mention two most frequent theories stated as reasons:

  1. Agentic state theory
It says people tend to ascribe to themselves the value of an instrument once they accept the leading role of someone else.

2. Conformism theory

Similar to the previous one, but, to say, less specific, suggesting that people tend to relax when they feel as a part of a group, so they end up thinking there is always someone else to take responsibility and blame. This is a usual problem when discussing egoism vs. altruism. Like the situations where only one of very few people tend to help a stranger in need on the street. It is usually a combination of ad hoc shock and fear with subconciously expecting someone else to approach.

3. Belief perseverance

This is (unfortunately) a very frequent occurence: beliefs continue even though we are faced with the opposing evidence. Overmore, beliefs usually become even more persistant when faced with some clear debunking evidence. This phenomenon is seen in science (e.g. accepting the safety of vaccines or not), but also in cultural and historical issues (e.g. believing some leader has benevolent intentions, while proving that is not the case, although we continue believing in the previously created image of him).


Misplaced/ confused emotions towards unknown people

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Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni Oct 08, 2020
I am not completely aware of the subjects that participated in Milgram's experiment. I am assuming the subjects did not know the person receiving a shock. The results would have been different if someone they knew was sitting in the learner's chair.

I recall reading that for optimal social interactions, a community needs to have about 150 people, not more. This was in Yuval Noah Harari's "Sapiens". This is also Dunbar's number - a person can have up to 150 stable relationships. The population of cities during Milgram's experiment far exceeded this number. The probability of a bond between two individuals was, therefore, highly unlikely. The subjects might, therefore, obey the person giving the instructions (out of fear/ respect towards an authoritative figure).

I am also thinking liberalist and individualist views then were not as pronounced as those of today. Self-thought is more rampant now. People, today, may be more inclined to choose for themselves than to listen to the conductor. Results may differ if the experiment was repeated today. May be the time is to blame, may be the war.

humans think differently from how they behave

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Martina Pesce
Martina Pesce Jan 13, 2021
Frequently, humans can't accurately predict other humans' behavior, because moral beliefs and hypothetical decisions don't necessarily match with real life decisions and actions. In fact, hypothetical decisions are supported by a different neural circuit than a real-life moral decision . In particular, both the decision activate empathic concern circuit, but while the hypothetical one is supported by a circuit for imagination, the real-life one is supported by the one for social and affective processes .
Empathy has a role in both situation, so this is not a factor for this mismatch in expectations and reality. maybe social processes?
I would say that imagining the social pressure of an authority figure ordering you to execute a task is not something easy to achieve.
It has been observed that the more in detail a scenario is described, the more the hypothetical and real-life decision will match.
Maybe the scenario was not described in a very precise way? Maybe they put more emphasis on the suffering of the shocked volunteers than on the social pressure and sever expression of the authority figure?

[1][1] O. Feldman Hall, T. Dalgleish, R. Thompson, D. Evans, S. Schweizer, and D. Mobbs, “Differential neural circuitry and self-interest in real vs hypothetical moral decisions,” Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci., 2012.

[2][1] O. FeldmanHall, D. Mobbs, D. Evans, L. Hiscox, L. Navrady, and T. Dalgleish, “What we say and what we do: The relationship between real and hypothetical moral choices,” Cognition, 2012.

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