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Researcher Finds Most Will Inflict Pain on Others If Prodded

Finding mirrors results of infamous psychological obedience study in 1960s

MONDAY, Jan. 5 (HealthDay News) -- People today may be just as willing to follow orders to hurt others as they were nearly half a century ago, a new study finds.

In a replication of one of the most famous and controversial experiments in behavioral psychology, people were asked to give what they believed were increasingly painful electric shocks to others in the name of science. Just as occurred in the original experiment, a vast majority of the shockers continued to turn on the juice even though it appeared the people receiving the jolts were in pain.

The recent study, performed by Santa Clara University professor Jerry M. Burger, attempts to reproduce the obedience experiments of the late Stanley Milgram. The findings were published in the January issue of American Psychologist, which included a special section about Milgram's work 24 years after his death.

"People learning about Milgram's work often wonder whether results would be any different today," Burger said in a news release issued by the journal. "Many point to the lessons of the Holocaust and argue that there is greater societal awareness of the dangers of blind obedience. But what I found is the same situational factors that affected obedience in Milgram's experiments still operate today."

As in Milgram's 1961 experiments at Yale University, Burger's subjects were told they were helping to test the effect of punishment on learning. At the order of an authority figure, the subject would give what they were told were increasingly powerful electric shocks to another person in a separate room. In reality, the machine giving the shocks was a fake, and the authority figure and the receiver of the alleged shocks were in on the ruse.

In Milgram's experiments, 82.5 percent of the participants continued administering shocks even after hearing the first cries of pain at the alleged 150-volts level.

In Burger's replication, 70 percent also wanted to continue when they hit that same level. The difference between the two figures was not statistically significant.

In both experiments, men and women obeyed the orders to administer the shocks at similar rates.

The experiments weren't completely identical, though, because of ethical concerns and codes that have developed since Milgram's time. For example, Burger lowered the maximum "shock" level from 450 volts to 150 volts. He also screened out any potential participants who had taken more than two psychology courses in college, were familiar with Milgram's research or, based on an evaluation of a clinical psychologist, might have a negative reaction to the study procedure. The subjects in Burger's study were told at least three times that they could quit at any time and still receive $50 for participating in the experiment.

Several psychologists commenting in the same issue of American Psychologist questioned whether the two studies are really on the same level, though they said the new study still has value.

"Though direct comparisons of absolute levels of obedience cannot be made between the 150-volt maximum of Burger's research design and Milgram's 450-volt maximum, Burger's 'obedience lite' procedures can be used to explore further some of the situational variables studied by Milgram, as well as look at additional variables," wrote Alan C. Elms of the University of California, Davis, one of the people who assisted Milgram in 1961.

More information

The Milgram re-enactment has more about Stanley Milgram's original experiment.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, Dec. 19, 2008

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