Q Why do people give into bad behavior if it makes them uncomfortable?
A The interesting part about human behavior is that we can pose hypotheticals all we want, but we may never know how we would react until faced with a particular taxing situation. On the whole, most people would state that they are intrinsically benevolent. But then why do good people sometimes commit questionable behavior? Stanley Milgram, who was a renowned social psychologist, found that when placed under extraordinary pressure by authority, good people sometimes exhibit shocking and ignoble behavior.
Milgram’s now infamous obedience study asked participants to take on the role of “teacher” and administer a learning and memory test to “students.” The teachers could hear the students’ answers but could not visually see them, and was asked to administer shocks to the students for wrong answers. In reality, no one was being shocked – the students were confederates of the study, which means that they were employed researchers posting as actual participants. The shock levels ranged from slight shock, moderate shock, severe shock, to presumably the highest level of shock, titled “xxx.”
When a student stated the wrong answer, the “teacher” was told by the experimenter, donning a lab coat, to administer a shock to the “student.” As the study progressed and the “student” began to miss more correct answers, the “teacher” had to increase the level of shocks. At the lower level of shocks, “teachers” could hear the “students” complain or grunt loudly. But as the level of shocks increased, so did their pleas to be released. Eventually some of the “students” began to complain of heart pain and yelled in desperation to be released.
Though it was noted that the participants in the “teacher” role were uncomfortable proceeding, they continued to administer the shocks at the demand of the experimenter. Despite voicing hesitations, anger, and extreme agitation, the “teacher” continued to administer shocks after the experimenter stated “it is required that you continue” or “you have no other choice, you must go on.” When Milgram made predictions of how the study would unfurl, he assumed that most participants would refuse to continue the experiment early on. However, a whopping 65 percent of participants discharged the maximum level of shocks to the “student.” All participants were debriefed after the study and were relieved to learn that no one was actually harmed.
This study has been used as a benchmark for the level humans potentially reach when faced with pressure by authority figures. Though the experimenter did not say anything more than “you must go on,” those words were enough to make people ignore their moral imperative and inflict ostensible harm on another human. What the Milgram experiment shows is that we’re awfully influenced by external social pressure, especially when it comes from someone we deem more powerful or dominant. In the Milgram studies, a social situation had more sway over behavior than a person’s personality characteristics. People demonstrated empathy, but that wasn’t enough to stop them from inflicting shocks.
Later, Milgram replicated this study but had one significant change. Alongside the “teacher,” Milgram placed another “teacher.” But this time, one of the “teachers” was also a confederate posing for the study and acted rebellious, refusing to go along with the study. At the sight of someone else’s refusal, the participants also refused to continue. Much can be taken away from Milgram’s study — namely, to be cognizant of how social pressure impacts your behavior. It’s important to listen to your own moral code — especially when that code tells you to flip the shock switch off.
Street Shrink Kristine Keller received her Masters in Psychology from New York University.
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