Tag Archives: Milgram

Blind Loyalty and the Importance of Critical Thinking

Two landmark studies in the 1960s and ’70s put behavioral psychology squarely in the public consciousness. The obedience experiments by Stanley Milgram and the Stanford Prison experiment demonstrated how regular individuals could be made, quite simply, to obey figures in authority and to subject others to humiliation, suffering and pain.

A re-examination of these experiments and several recent similar studies have prompted a number of psychologists to offer a reinterpretation of the original conclusions. They suggest that humans may not be inherently evil after all. However, we remain dangerously flawed — our willingness to follow those in authority, especially in those with whom we identify, makes us susceptible to believing in the virtue of actions that by all standards would be monstrous. It turns out that an open mind able to think critically may be the best antidote.

[div class=attrib]From the Pacific Standard:[end-div]

They are among the most famous of all psychological studies, and together they paint a dark portrait of human nature. Widely disseminated in the media, they spread the belief that people are prone to blindly follow authority figures—and will quickly become cruel and abusive when placed in positions of power.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments of 1961, or the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. Yet in recent years, the conclusions derived from those studies have been, if not debunked, radically reinterpreted.

A new perspective—one that views human nature in a more nuanced light—is offered by psychologists Alex Haslam of the University of Queensland, Australia, and Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

In an essay published in the open-access journal PLoS Biology, they argue that people will indeed comply with the questionable demands of authority figures—but only if they strongly identify with that person, and buy into the rightness of those beliefs.
In other words, we’re not unthinking automatons. Nor are we monsters waiting for permission for our dark sides to be unleashed. However, we are more susceptible to psychological manipulation than we may realize.

In Milgram’s study, members of the general public were placed in the role of “teacher” and told that a “learner” was in a nearby room. Each time the “learner” failed to correctly recall a word as part of a memory experiment, the “teacher” was told to administer an electrical shock.

As the “learner” kept making mistakes, the “teacher” was ordered to give him stronger and stronger jolts of electricity. If a participant hesitated, the experimenter—an authority figure wearing a white coat—instructed him to continue.

Somewhat amazingly, most people did so: 65 percent of participants continued to give stronger and stronger shocks until the experiment ended with the “learner” apparently unconscious. (The torture was entirely fictional; no actual shocks were administered.)
To a world still reeling from the question of why so many Germans obeyed orders and carried out Nazi atrocities, here was a clear answer: We are predisposed to obey authority figures.

The Stanford Prisoner Experiment, conducted a few years later, was equally unnerving. Students were randomly assigned to assume the role of either prisoner or guard in a “prison” set up in the university’s psychology department. As Haslam and Reicher note, “such was the abuse meted out to the prisoners by the guards that the study had to be terminated after just six days.”

Lead author Philip Zimbardo, who assumed the role of “prison superintendent” with a level of zeal he later found frightening, concluded that brutality was “a natural consequence of being in the uniform of a guard and asserting the power inherent in that role.”

So is all this proof of the “banality of evil,” to use historian Hannah Arendt’s memorable phrase? Not really, argue Haslam and Reicher. They point to their own work on the BBC Prison Study, which mimicked the seminal Stanford study.

They found that participants “did not conform automatically to their assigned role” as prisoner or guard. Rather, there was a period of resistance, which ultimately gave way to a “draconian” new hierarchy. Before becoming brutal, the participants needed time to assume their new identities, and internalize their role in the system.

Once they did so, “the hallmark of the tyrannical regime was not conformity, but creative leadership and engaged followership within a group of true believers,” they write. “This analysis mirrors recent conclusions about the Nazi tyranny.”

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

It’s Actually 4.74 Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Six degrees of separation is commonly held urban myth that on average everyone on Earth is six connections or less away from any other person. That is, through a chain of friend of a friend (of a friend, etc) relationships you can find yourself linked to the President, the Chinese Premier, a farmer on the steppes of Mongolia, Nelson Mandela, the editor of theDiagonal, and any one of the other 7 billion people on the planet.

The recent notion of degrees of separation stems from original research by Michael Gurevich at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the structure of social networks in his 1961. Subsequently, an Austrian mathematician, Manfred Kochen, proposed in his theory of connectedness for a U.S.-sized population, that “it is practically certain that any two individuals can contact one another by means of at least two intermediaries.” In 1967 psychologist Stanley Milgram and colleagues validated this through his acquaintanceship network experiments on what was then called the Small World Problem. In one example, with 296 volunteers who were asked to send a message by postcard, through friends and then friends of friends, to a specific person living near Boston. Milgram’s work published in Psychology Today showed that people in the United States seemed to be connected by approximately three friendship links, on average. The experiment generated a tremendous amount of publicity, and as a result to this day he is incorrectly attributed with originating the ideas and quantification of interconnectedness and even the statement “six degrees of separation”.

In fact, the statement was originally articulated in 1929 by Hungarian author, Frigyes Karinthy and later popularized by in a play written by John Guare. Karinthy believed that the modern world was ‘shrinking’ due to the accelerating interconnectedness of humans. He hypothesized that any two individuals could be connected through at most five acquaintances. In 1990, playwright John Guare unveiled a play (followed by a movie in 1993) titled “Six Degrees of Separation”. This popularized the notion and enshrined it into popular culture. In the play one of the characters reflects on the idea that any two individuals are connected by at most five others:

I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it A) extremely comforting that we’re so close, and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection… I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.

Then in 1994 along came the Kevin Bacon trivia game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” invented as a play on the original concept. The goal of the game is to link any actor to Kevin Bacon through no more than six connections, where two actors are connected if they have appeared in a movie or commercial together.

Now, in 2011 comes a study of connectedness of Facebook users. Using Facebook’s population of over 700 million users, researchers found that the average number of links from any arbitrarily selected user to another was 4.74; for Facebook users in the U.S., the average number of of links was just 4.37. Facebook posted detailed findings on its site, here.

So, the Small World Problem popularized by Milgram and colleagues is actually becoming smaller as Frigyes Karinthy had originally suggested back in 1929. As a result, you may not be as “far” from the Chinese Premier or Nelson Mandela as you may have previously believed.

[div class=attrib]Image: Six Degrees of Separation Poster by James McMullan. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]