Stanley Milgram’s experiment in the 1960s is one of the most popular and well known psychological studies, not only for psychology students but for many around the world. This study was developed by Americans post World War II when the world uncovered the mass torture and murder of millions of jews in concentration camps across Poland and the obedience in which many German soldiers displayed by simply carrying out orders from their superiors. After one high ranking German officer who had a background as a scientist went on trial the world was in shocked to discover that he stated he was only following orders from superiors. Presuming this type of behaviour was culturally inherited with German nationals, Stanley Milgram conducted this experiment to help prove that Americans from an ‘individualistic’ culture wouldn’t follow the same level of blind obedience.
The Milgram study explained
The Milgram study itself obtained ordinary volunteers to follow a scientist’s instruction to give what they apparently thought was a deadly electric shock to another participant and have been taken by many to show our alarming propensity for blind obedience. Milgram’s own interpretation, was that we readily give up our own sense of responsibility when following instructions from an authority figure.
However, his “obedience studies” have come in for recent criticism and re-interpretation, which largely contrasts with all major textbooks. The most prominent contemporary theory is that the studies don’t demonstrate blind obedience at all, but rather “engaged followership” meaning people’s willingness to do bad things when they see them as morally good because they serve a higher cause…science.
The new results contrast sharply with evidence by proponents of the engaged followership theory. For instance, for a 2015 paper, a group of scientists analysed responses to a survey that Milgram mailed out to his participants in the weeks and months after they took part. The most prominent feature of the participants’ feedback was reportedly their happiness and sense of privilege at having taking part in important science. However, there is a key difference from the new findings. These surveys were completed a good time after the participants had been debriefed about the purpose of the research. In other words, they were delayed, post-hoc justifications, coloured by the debrief. In contrast, the newly analysed interviews provide the participants’ immediate, personal take on why they behaved the way they did.
Certainly, all the evidence suggests that Milgram’s participants were ‘happy to have been of service’, on the other hand, the neglected body of evidence and post study interviews suggests that the puzzle of participants behaviour is more complex than original evidence suggests.
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