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Study Shows People Are Still Willing to Harm Others to Obey Authority


The iconic Stanley Milgram obedience study sought to determine how the majority of people would react when instructed to deliver an electric shock to another participant. This was thought to tie into the debate over whether all Nazi soldiers could truly be held accountable for all of their crimes as accomplishes or whether they could be pardoned or given a lesser sentence because they had “just been following orders.” When confronted with the idea ahead of time, most people would readily decline that they would ever place themselves in the position to harm another person, even when under the direction of someone else. However, the original study, the first trial of which began in 1961, found that a surprisingly high quantity of people would deliver the instructed (fictional) shock to another “volunteer” when told to do so by someone that was perceived to be in a position of authority. The proportion of those willing to cause harm to another human being when under the influence of someone they perceive as having authority over them was a staggering 9 to 1.

The journal “Social Psychological and Personality Science” recently published an updated/follow-up version (taking place in 2015) of Milgram’s classic social experiment to see whether similar results would be obtained. This study took place in Poland, which was particularly interesting to examiners considering such a social science study with a focus on obedience and conformity had never been conducted in central Europe. The replicated study was not a complete duplicate because of certain ethical standards preventing an identical set-up; the “shock” levels were decreased in order to comply with these regulations, but the overarching concept and intention of the study remained identical. 80 volunteers, evenly distributed as 40 men and 40 women, were recruited between the ages of 18 to 69 to participate and were given ten buttons which were supposedly assumed to distribute an increasingly intense shock to another person. The resulting compliance levels were indeed very close to those of Milgram’s original study which proceeded this one by more than 50 years- 90% of those taking place in the experiment were willing to carry out the shock to the fullest extent, delivering the highest possible one when under pressure to do so by a superior. People were three times less likely to deliver the shock when they believed the person on the receiving end was female, but the group of those who refused to comply was so small that very few conclusions can be made about this association between sex and willingness to deliver harm. 50 years after Milgram’s eye-opening look into the willingness of people to comply with seemingly outrageous orders shows that when we feel pressured or cornered into doing so by someone we respect or feel we should trust, we are more inclined than we may initially believe to do something we would not typically even consider, even to the point where it causes harm to an innocent person.


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