Saturday, 4 October 2008

Against some ethical interpretations of the Milgram experiment

I attended this morning to a lecture by a physician and Professor at the University Claude Bernard Lyon 1 about the famous experiments of Stanley Milgram.

Here you can find a brief description of these experiments and a discussion of the statements made by the Professor.

I) Presentation of the experience:

The origin of the problem:

Stanley Milgram notes that if you want to explain the mortality rate in our societies, a small number of individuals sufficient. But explain the mass extermination of entire populations requires not only a very large number of individuals, but some institutions.

The problem is: how to explain the mass exterminations? Are all individuals likely to commit barbaric acts in certain situations (thesis of the banality of evil)? Or should we consider that this type of act is reserved for a handful of men suffering from psychiatric problems?

The experimental procedures:

The aim:

The aim of the experiment is to test the reaction of individuals facing an environment in which the authority is an important factor, ie the ability of individuals to obey. Naturally, as in most experiments in psychology, the individual know nothing about the purpose of the experiment.

The situation:

In some local newspapers, advertisement offering to participate inexperiments in psychology, can be read. Individuals wishing to participate are invited to Yale University. In a waiting room, one of these individuals meets another person who purports to come for the experiment.

After a while, a man in white coat, tell them to come in the room for the experimentation. He explains that the purpose of the experiment is to test the role of punishment in the learning process (which is not very well known). Then he describes the procedures of the test, while explaining the function of the technical equipment.

The test is simple. One will be an instructor and the other a student. The investigator merely has an observer role. The instructor reads a set of phrases easy to remember composed by a noun and an adjective (say, "blue sky"). After hearing this set, the student has to, while hearing the first part of a phrase, remember the missing part and tell it to the instructor. If the student responds correctly, he is not punished, if he does not answer correctly, he is punished. The punishment will be a shock.

The experience takes place in two separated rooms. In the basic version of the experiment, the rooms are connected by a loudspeaker and a microphone. In a room, there is a seat with straps, which will be where the student will be seating. In the other room, there is a table with some joysticks (30. Each joystick corresponds to a voltage, from 15 V to 450 V.

The rule is: if the student responds correctly, he does not have any shock, if he answers incorrectly, he received an electric shock more important than the last he received.

After this exhibition, a 45-volt shock is administered to both of them. They choose the student and the instructor by ballot. Eventually, they take their place and the experience begins.

The rules of the procedure:
-The person undergoing the experience knows nothing of the real purpose of the experiment.
-The person who will be the student is an actor.
-There is no electric shocks. Expressions of grief have been previously standardized (at each intensity of shock, a behavior is fixed) and are credible.
-The ballot is biased.
-If the person refuses to continue, the investigator has 4 replies to oppose him:
1. Please continue.
2. The experiment requires that you continue.
3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
-The experience ceases if the person refuses a 5th time. Otherwise, it continues until the monitor administers three times the highest voltage: 450 volts.


First experience (tested on 40 people, as described previously):
Avg shock Max (when the tested individual stops): 375 V
obedience rate (those who have gone through the experience): 63%

Alternative version: variying with the sound hear by the tested individual(the monitor only knows the answer, but neither heard nor saw the student):
maximum shock average: 405 volts.
obedience rate: 65%

Alternative version: the subject can see the student
Avg shock Max: 315 volts
obedience rate: 40%

Alternative version: contact with the tortured man (the monitor must keep the arm of the student in the strap):
Avg shock Max: 270 volts
obedience rate: 30%

Alternative version:variying with the sex: (woman instructor, the student is a male, base-experience):
Avg shock Max: 375%
obedience rate: 65%

Alternative version: "two companions rebelled. " 3 people besides the student: one describes the exercise, another describes the response of the pupil, another (the subject tested) presses the joystick. The first rebels at 150 volts, the second at 210 volts.
Avg shock max: 240 V
obedience rate: 10%

Alternative version: "another administers the shocks." A person (the subject tested) tells the answer of the student, the other administer the shock (without revolt):
Avg Max shock: 405%
obedience rate: 93%

Milgram, Stanley (1963), "Behavioral Study of Obedience", Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 371–378 (full text PDF at webpage "Milgram Experiment", Wikipedia).

Milgram, Stanley. (1974), Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View. Harper Collins

II) The ethical interpretation:

This experience raises many ethical issues. It is not my purpose to discuss all these problems. I want to focus on an interpretation of applied ethics that was the thesis of the Professor.

What a person with a medical activity should conclude from these experiences? For example, how a nurse should respond to the authority of his superiors when they propose to do something that can cause some pain to others?

The professor told the audience that the only way to find the right solution was 1) to have very clear moral values, 2) to deliberate (to compare the opportunities, take time to think); 3) to be responsible; 4) to rethink the experience to be able to improve.

To say otherwise, he wanted to short-circuit the effect of habits by giving more importance to the beliefs (values) and the rational ability of the individual.

III) My objections:

During the lecture, I stated my opposition to his analysis of the Milgram experiment and to the ethical conclusions he had drawn from this analysis. Here's why

1) His presentation of the experiment is not conform to the work of Milgram. It can be noticed from the conclusions he draws from the experiments. He treats the act of the tested individuals as the result of some "prejudices". And the best way to fight them, according to him, is to make people more aware of what they are doing, to develop the rational capacity of people.

But the Milgram experiment does not test beliefs. It tests the answers of an individual facing a
authoritarian environment . It is an experience about behavior. The question of the beliefs is never taken into account by Milgram. From this point of view, it is possible that the people tested had very clear values and they could believed strongly in.

Note that the place of beliefs is taken into account in one experiment only: the alternative "two companions rebelled." In this experiment, the closed circuit "stimulus-response to the environment by the subject" is opened by the conduct which manifests disapproval of the two other individuals. The results (the lowest of all variants) shows that the individual has somehow been able to break this closed circuit.

Ultimately, the place of the belief is negligible in the context of the Milgram experiment. But the confusion that took place, and the ethical conclusions drawned by the Professor inherit from that confusion.

2) The ethical conclusion derived from this experience has already been stated: we must find a way to make people more aware of their activity and more sensitive to the pain of others.

Why this response is not the good answer? This response intends to change the beliefs, but it does not change behavior. But what matters in the Milgram experiment, is the behavior of individuals. Faced with a stimulation with an authoritarian character, beliefs have almost no power. I am afraid that only a "training" aimed at changing the behavior could change the response of an individual facing a stimulus with an authoritarian aspect. But this solution raises many ethical problems too.


Tina said...

Very interesting post. I really enjoyed readin your point of view. I actually came across a post written on Milgram's shock study this morning; I think you'd enjoy reading it.

Mikolka said...

Dear Tina,

I am glad to see that my point of view, though very clumsily expressed, interested you.

Thanks for the link. The post is indeed very interesting and underlines something that I did not say: at 130 V many guinea pigs expressed some concern, but felt some relief as soon as the instructor said that they would not be held as responsible for the consequences of the experiments.

And I find the conclusion of the post (an extract from Milgram) very interesting: the way we act depends more on the environment than of the kind of individual we are.
I think that Milgram himself is on my side!

I am trying to contact the Professor who made the lecture in case he wants to reply. But I am afraid he will answer in the french version of this post. maybe with his agreement, I can translate his response.

Best regards