Upfront

Nearly 50 years after the controversial Milgram experiments, social psychologist Jerry M. Burger, PhD, has found that people are still just as willing to administer what they believe are painful electric shocks to others when urged on by an authority figure.

Burger, a professor at Santa Clara University, replicated one of the famous obedience experiments of the late Stanley Milgram, PhD, and found that compliance rates in the replication were only slightly lower than those found by Milgram. And, like Milgram, he found no difference in the rates of obedience between men and women.

"People learning about Milgram's work often wonder whether results would be any different today," Burger says. "Many point to the lessons of the Holocaust and argue that there is greater societal awareness of the dangers of blind obedience. But what I found is the same situational factors that affected obedience in Milgram's experiments still operate today."

Stanley Milgram, PhD, was an assistant professor at Yale in 1961 when he conducted the first in a series of experiments in which subjects—thinking they were testing the effect of punishment on learning—administered what they believed were increasingly powerful electric shocks to another person in a separate room. An authority figure conducting the experiment prodded the first person, who was assigned the role of "teacher," to continue shocking the other person, who was playing the role of "learner." In reality, both the authority figure and the learner were in on the real intent of the experiment, and the imposing-looking shock generator machine was a fake.

Milgram found that, after hearing the learner's first cries of pain at 150 volts, 82.5 percent of participants continued administering shocks; of those, 79 percent continued to the shock generator's end, at 450 volts. In Burger's replication, 70 percent of the participants had to be stopped as they continued past 150 volts—a difference that was not statistically significant.

Burger implemented a number of safeguards that enabled him to win approval for the work from his university's institutional review board, including making 150 volts the top range in his study. Burger also screened out anyone who had taken more than two psychology courses in college or who indicated familiarity with Milgram's research. A clinical psychologist also interviewed potential subjects and eliminated anyone who might have a negative reaction to the study procedure.

—K.I. Mills