Would You Harm Another Person if an Authority Figure Orderd You To?

As much progress as society has made over the last several decades in the areas of civil rights, science, and technology the human condition has remained rather stubborn when it comes to change. 

Perhaps nothing better illustrates this than an update on the famous Milgram Experiment. Spoiler alert – the human psyche is still very much the same. Even if the name of the Milgram experiment doesn’t instantly ring a bell, its procedure and findings will surely conjure up old memories of high school or college “introduction to psychology” classes. People are still willing to send an electric shock to others if an authority figure directs them to do so. 

A new study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, examined a second round of the experiment that was conducted in Poland in 2015 and found that the majority of people were willing to go against their moral compass and harm another person, simply because somebody else ordered them to do so.  

“Half a century after Milgram’s original research into obedience to authority, a striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual,” said the study’s researchers. 

Before we go into more detail of the results from the new study, let’s dive into a bit of a refresher on how the original study from the 1960s played out.

A Look at the Dark Side of Authoritarian Influence

Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram set out to examine whether the behavior of Nazi soldiers and officers was the result of some inherent evil or a matter of humans being susceptible to the influence of an authoritarian figure. 

In his experiment, Milgram had three participants with two of them in-the-know and one of them unaware of how the experiment was being conducted. Milgram tested his theory by having a scientist act as an authoritarian figure who would observe a willing participant sitting in a room with a microphone and several buttons. This participant would then ask “the learner” who was in another room a series of questions.

Each time the learner answered a question incorrectly, the participant was directed by the observing scientist to administer an electric shock. With each incorrectly answered question, the participant was told to increase the amount and length of the shock, thus sending more pain to the learner.  

It’s important to note that the learner, as well as the scientist observing, were both in on the experiment and the learner wasn’t actually being shocked or experiencing pain but was merely acting. That said, the participant wasn’t aware of this and was actually given a very small shock of electricity to motivate them to carry out the authoritarian figure’s orders. Milgram argued that the experiment showed the “extreme willingness of adults to go almost any lengths on the command of authority.” Pretty twisted, right?

Well, the even more twisted part was that a majority of the participants carried out the orders to the very end, even though they at times questioned the orders. One might think that a person would put their foot down at some point and refuse to harm the learner any further, but that sadly wasn’t the case.

Has Anything Changed?

Jump forward to 2015 with the Milgram experiment carried out in Poland and its results were roughly no different. Out of the 80 people who participated in the experiment, 90 percent of them administered shocks until the very end. 

“In spite of the over 50 years which have passed since the original experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram on obedience, these experiments are still considered a turning point in our thinking about the role of the situation in human behavior,” wrote the study’s researchers. 

The researchers did make a small alteration to the experiment, however,  that produced some interesting results. The team took careful measures to control the sex of both the learner and the participant in the study and found that participants were three times greater to protest the commands of the authority figure when the learner was a woman.

The Milgram experiment isn’t the only psychology experiment to highlight how easily humans can become cruel towards one another without reason. The famous Standford Prison Experiment carried out in the 1970s also demonstrated how quickly humans could become sadistic towards one another when power and authority came into play.

We Still Have a Long Way to Go

The Polish 2015 update on the Milgram experiment isn’t the only one of its kind either. In 2019, Scientific American conducted its own virtual version of the experiment where participants were asked to administer a shock to an avatar that incorrectly answered the questions. 

While 85 percent of the participants completed the task, many tried to cheat the system by giving cues to the avatar such as reading the correct answers in a louder voice. People were still willing to inflict harm, despite having a moral conflict about their actions. 

So what does all of this say about the human condition of today? Well, we haven’t changed all that much and people are rather easily capable of doing bad things to others when under the influence of an authoritarian figure — regardless of their conscience telling them it’s wrong. We may not be there yet, but perhaps with enough time, human actions can catch up with the human conscience.

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