Hank Green [ Crash Course ] #38 – If someone in a position of authority told you to like stop walking on the grass, you would stop walking on the grass. Right? And if they told you to help someone’s grandma across the street or pick up your dog’s poop or put your shoes on before you go into a store, you’d probably comply.

But what if they ordered you to physically hurt another person?

You’re probably thinking no way, I could never do something like that!

But there’s a good chance you’re wrong.

In the early 1960s Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram began what would become one of social psychology’s most famed and chilling experiments.

Milgram began his work during the widely publicized trial of World War II Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

Eichmann’s defense, along with other Nazis, for sending millions of people to their deaths was that he was simply following the orders of his superiors. And while that may have been true, it didn’t fly in court and Eichmann was ultimately executed for his crimes.

But the question got Milgram to thinking what might the average person be capable of when under orders.

So, for his initial experiment, Milgram recruited 40 male volunteers using newspaper ads.

He built a phony shock generator with a scale of 30 switches that could supposedly deliver shocks in increments from 30 volts up to 450 volts — labeled with terms like slight shock to dangerous shock up to simply XXX.

He then paired each volunteer participant with someone who was also apparently a participant but was in fact one of Milgram’s colleagues posing as a research subject.

He had them draw straws to see who would be the learner and who would be the teacher.

The volunteers didn’t realize that the draw was fixed so that they’d always be the teacher while Milgram’s buddy would be the learner.

So the fake learner was put into a room strapped to a chair and wired up with electrodes.

The teacher, the person who was being studied, and a researcher, who was played by an actor, went into another room with a shock generator that the teacher had no idea was fake.

The learner was asked to memorize a list of word pairs and the participant was told that he’d be testing the learners recall of those words and should administer an electric shock for every wrong answer –  increasing the shock level a little bit each time.

From here the pretend learner purposely gave mainly wrong answers — eliciting shocks from the participant.  If a participant hesitated, perhaps swayed by the learners yelps of pain, the researcher gave orders to make sure he continued.

These orders were delivered in a series of four prods.

The first was just, “please continue”.

If the participant didn’t comply, the researcher issued other prods until he did. He’d say, “the experiment requires you to continue” and then “it’s absolutely essential that you continue” and finally “you have no choice but to continue”.

Even Milgram was surprised by the first round of experiments.

About two-thirds of the participants ended up delivering the maximum 450 volts shock.

All of the volunteers continued to at least 300 volts.

Over the years Milgram kept conducting this experiment, changing the situation in different ways to see if it had any effect on people’s obedience, but he repeatedly found that obedience was highest when the person giving the orders was nearby and was perceived as an authority figure — especially if they were from a prestigious institution.

This was also true if the victim was depersonalized or placed at a distance such as in another room.

Plus subjects were more likely to comply with orders if they didn’t see anyone else disobeying — if there were no role models of defiance.

In the end, Milgram’s path-breaking work shed some seriously harsh light on the enormous power of two of the key cornerstone topics of social psychology: social influence and conformity.

We all conform to some sort of social norms — like following traffic laws, or even obeying the dress codes for different roles and environments.

When we know how to act in a certain group or settings, life just seems to go more smoothly

Some of this conformity is non-conscious automatic mimicry, like how you’re likely to laugh if you see someone else laughing or nod your head when they’re nodding.

In this way group behavior can be contagious.

But overall conformity describes how we adjust our behavior or thinking to follow the behavior or rules of the group we belong to.

Social psychologists have always been curious about the degree to which a person might follow or rebel against their group social norms.

During the early 1950s, Polish American psychologist Solomon Asch expressed the power of Conformity through a simple test.

In this experiment the volunteer is told that they’re participating in the study on visual perception and are seated at a table with five other people.

The experimenter shows the group a picture of a standard line and three comparison lines of various lengths and then asks the people to say which of the three lines matches the comparison line.

It’s clear to anyone with any kind of good vision that the second line is the right answer but, the thing is, most if not all of the other people in the group start choosing the wrong line.

The participant doesn’t know that those other people are all actors — a common deception used in social psychological research — and they are intentionally giving the wrong answer.

This causes the real participants to struggle with trusting their own eyes or going with the group.

In the end, most subjects still gave what they knew was the correct answer, but more than a third were essentially just willing to give the wrong answer to mesh with the group.

Asch and subsequent researchers found that people are more likely to conform to a group if they’re made to feel incompetent or insecure and are in a group of three more people.

Especially if all those people agree.

It also certainly doesn’t hurt if the person admires the group, because of maybe their status or their attractiveness, and if we feel that others are watching our behavior, we also tend to conform or if we’re from a culture that puts particular emphasis on respect for social standards.


FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Scott Law

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