Posted in Psych Bites, Psychology

Psych Bites: Why do we Obey Authority?

I know, I know, another feature, I start these oh so often and I swear I do intend to actually keep them! I want to try and get all of my ideas out of there so that anyone who visits my blog knows exactly what I’m about. 

This brand new section I have decided to call “Psych Bites”, I know this may sound somewhat geeky, and maybe even a little bit childish, but I like the name so hush! 

You may be wondering what this segment is going to be about. Well my friends this is going to be all things Psychology! For those of you that don’t know I currently study Psychology at university and have just entered my second year, I have a big passion for this subject and know that there can be a lot of interesting parts to it that a lot of people may not know about! I have a LOT of books on this topic, obviously, so it still fits in with the bookish theme I have going on this blog.

I’m going to be writing about case studies, whacky things that were done in the past (and obviously disproved), theories into different topics such as personality and much more!

For the first one I decided that I would start with an experiment that I learnt about in my A level studies and found very interesting. If you have studied Psychology in any shape or form you may have heard of this experiment.

This experiment was looking at obedience to authority. Have you ever wondered why people followed Hitler? Or why the Nazi’s in the concentration camps would follow orders to kill people? This is exactly what Stanley Milgram, an American Social Psychologist at Yale University in the 1960’s, wondered too. He decided to conduct an experiment to see if he could get members of the public to willingly cause harm to another human being, within the presence of authority.

I know what you’re thinking; wait what?! But bare with me, he just made the participants THINK they were hurting someone, when obviously they weren’t.

Milgram put out an advert in a newspaper advertising an experiment on memory and participants would receive a sum of $4.00 for taking part. Three people were involved in the experiment; the experimenter, the participant and a volunteer who pretended to also be a participant to the experiment also known as a “stooge”. Both the participant and the stooge would draw out from a hat to determine whether they were the “teacher” or the “learner” however, both pieces of paper said “teacher” and the stooge would claim to have chosen “learner” each time.

The idea was that the participant would be teaching the “learner” pairs of words, and every time they got a pair wrong they would administer an electric shock to learner, going up in 15 volts each time there was an incorrect answer, the maximum voltage being 450 volts which would be a potentially deadly voltage. To make the participant believe that this was in fact real, the experimenter administered a small shock to the participant.

As the shocks became higher the learner would be heard to complain of pain or beg to be released. At the 300 volt level the learner would be heard to bang on the wall and demand to be released, beyond this point the learner would be completely silent and not even answer anymore questions, this was suggestive that the “learner” had passed out, or even worse. At this point the experimenter would tell the teacher to treat the silence as incorrect answers and to continue to administer shocks.

If the teachers showed any sign of wanting to stop, or see if the “learner” was alright, then the experimenter would issue what is known as “prods and prompts” and would say one of four phrases such as “It is absolutely essential that you continue”.

In the original experiment, 40 men were tested, although Milgram did later repeat the experiment with women and had the same results. The results found that 65% of the participants went all the way to the end of the volts, that administering a 450 volt shock to another human, willingly. 100% of the participants went up to 300 volts. Afterwards, participants were told about how the experiment wasn’t real

Obviously this experiment has a LOT of ethical issues. For starters, the participants thought that they were harming another human being, in some cases this caused visible stress such as shaking and sweating, even though the participants continued to obey. Furthermore, the participants right to withdraw from the experiment was taken away by the “prods and prompts”. There are many more issues with this experiment and would never be able to be repeated today. However, it showed how everyone may have the possibility to do potentially evil things, and that the presence of an authority figure (in this case the experimenter) can turn someone into a completely different person.

What do you think? Do you think everyone has the potential to harm another human in the right circumstances?


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