Here at Applied Behavioral Strategies, our mission is to improve the quality of life through effective intervention. One way we hope to do that is by reviewing research articles for our readers. Today’s article is titled, “Replicating Milgrim”. The author, Jerry Burger, published the study in the journal, American Psychologist.
The purpose of Dr. Burger’s study was to replicate the work of Milgram whose study series is known to many. (In case you are thinking–“who the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks” is Milgram, think back to the study where the supervisor told the participants to shock the “client” and the study participants did! Repeatedly!!). Psychologists now refer to those studies as the Obedience Studies.
Burger wondered, if after all these years of education, training, human compassion, and so forth, if, in fact, people today would engage in the same behavior. Burger took several steps to ensure the safety of participants in the study (yes, the ones who would be giving shock to the “learner”)
Participants included 29 men and 41 women with a mean age of 42 years. Participants were promised $50 for their time (two 45-minute sessions). Participants learned that they earned the money even if they withdrew from the study. Participants who were familiar with the experiment or who had extensive psychology training were excluded from the study. Experimenters then screened the remaining participants for any possible mental health condition or a reasons that may have resulted in a negative or harmful reaction from participating in the study. Researchers told participants they could quit at any time and that they could be videotaped at any time. Researchers assigned participants to one of two conditions.
The base condition consisted of the participant meeting the experimenter and the confederate (inside experimenter with knowledge of the study). The experimenter explained to the participant and the confederate that they would be in a study. He then paid both of them to give the impression that the study was randomized. Then he had them “draw” to determine who would be the teacher and who would be the learner. The “drawing” was rigged so that the participant always served as the teacher.
The experimenter then strapped the confederate in to the chair and attached the electrodes all the while explaining to the participant why he completed his step (e.g., to keep from burning him). Next, the experimenter told the confederate to learn the pairs of words. The experimenter told the confederate that the participant would be testing him and if he missed any answers, he would be administered a shock.
Next the experimenter taught the participant how to administer a shock. He provided a small one to the participant if he/she wanted one. The experimenter told the participant to administer a shock following each incorrect answer. He also instructed the participant to increase the intensity of the shock following each incorrect answer. Finally, the experimenter told the participant the importance of following study procedures .
The modeled refusal condition consisted of the participant meeting the experiment and 2 confederates. One confederate served as a teacher alongside the participant and the other confederate served as the learner. In this condition, the participant observed another “teacher” following the protocol. In this condition, the “teacher” (who happened to be the same gender as the participant) acted scared of the study after the first shock and then after the second shock decided that he/she would quit. The experimenter then allowed the participant to take over and continue as in the base condition.
In both conditions, the researchers enforced strict rules for ending the experiment and keeping the participant safe.
In the base condition 12 out of 18 men and 16 out of 22 women (70% total) continued to administer shock treatments, despite the cries and yelps from the confederate. Meanwhile in the modeled refusal condition, 6 out of 11 men and 13 out of 19 women continued to administer shock treatments.
The researchers completed several personality assessments on the participants and used those results in additional analyses. Statistical analysis did not find any difference between scores on empathy. However statistical analysis revealed differences among participants with a strong desire for control in that they were more likely to stop the study.
Sadly, participants today responded very similarly to those participants in the 1960s.
Take Home Points
As behavior analysts, behavior analysts in training, teachers, and parents, use caution when you are instructed to implement a procedure that you may disagree with. As demonstrated in this study, humans are more likely to follow orders rather than stand up and refuse or question the treatment. When our children are being shocked (as those in Judge Rotenberg Center), restrained, and secluded, perhaps we should seek a 2nd opinion. Isn’t that what we do in medicine when we question a recommendation?