Benedict Carey writes about two new papers on the Milgram experiment coming soon to academic journals near you. Dominic Packer of Ohio State University uses Milgram’s actual data to analyze the point at which disobedience becomes most likely – 150 volts (out of a possible 450 volts). This number has been noticed by researchers before, most notably Steven Gilbert who called 150 volts the first “qualitative change.” This voltage level is the first at which the person being shocked moves beyond grunting and yelping in pain, and says “Stop, let me out! I don’t want to do this anymore.” About one-third of subjects disobey at 150 volts, which occurs, Packer says, because it is the first point in the experiment at which the “conflict between the instructions of the experimenter and the contradictory requests of the learner” becomes clear. The decision at 150 volts had a fairly sticky effect on future decisions. Subjects who followed orders at 150 generally did so at higher levels. Subjects who disobeyed generally continued to disobey. Writes Packer:
This may have been due to cognitive dissonance processes, such that, after ignoring the learner’s initial request, it became increasingly difficult to acknowledge the validity of his subsequent pleas and justify a new course of action. This could also be viewed as a foot-in-the-door type phenomenon, in that participants found it harder to refuse orders to give larger shocks after having previously acquiesced to less consequential actions.
Read Packer’s full paper here.
In case you think the Milgram findings wouldn’t be replicated today, think again. A Santa Clara researcher ran Milgram’s experiment to a tee.
Once again, more than half the participants agreed to proceed with the experiment past the 150-volt mark. Jerry M. Burger, the author, interviewed the participants afterward and found that those who stopped generally believed themselves to be responsible for the shocks, whereas those who kept going tended to hold the experimenter accountable. That is, the Milgram work also demonstrated individual differences in perceptions of accountability — of who’s on the hook for what.