Milgram and Zimbardo: Creative Evil Rather than Blind Obedience?


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Milgram studied subjects’ willingness administer electric shock. Image by DMU Viv’s Biology Courses

Drs. Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo conducted two of the most memorable, and frightening, studies in social science.

Milgram’s research, conducted at Yale in 1961-1962, described as a study of “obedience to authority” by, a website by Dr. Thomas Blass, a holocaust survivor and acclaimed psychologists.

Milgram’s study aimed to determine how many volts of  electricity a subject would give to another research subject in the context of an experiment.

A decade later at Stanford, Zimbardo famously studied the psychological effects of taking the role of prisoner or prison guard in an experiment.

Both studies proved alarming, and both have been interpreted as proof of the powerlessness of the individual in the face of authority and social systems.

This explanation has been called into question in a recent essay by Dr. S. Alexander Haslam and Dr. Stephen Reichter of the School of Psychology in Queensland.

Stanley Milgram and Harmful Electric Shocks

In a study that purported to examine punishment on learning, Migram found that subjects called “Teachers” were willing to give harmful doses of electricity to other volunteers, Learners.  (In reality, no shocks were given, the “Learners” were pretending.)

When a subject expressed discomfort at giving higher levels of electricity, the experimenter would encourage them, making statements such as ‘The experiment requires that you continue.” according to Dr. Haslam’s essay.  And most did.  65% administered the highest voltage possible.

In an essay reviewing the study, Dr. Haslam, writes that the results “appeared to provide compelling evidence that normal well adjusted men would be willing to kill a complete stranger simply because they were ordered to do so by an authority.”

Zimbardo and the Psychological Effects of Prison Roles

In a basement at Stanford in 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo divided volunteers into two groups, “prisoners” and “guards.” As noted in a BBC retrospective article by Alistair Leithead, the Zimbardo’s experiment quickly went awry, “The Stanford prison experiment was supposed to last two weeks but was ended abruptly just six days later, after a string of mental breakdowns, an outbreak of sadism and a hunger strike.” 

Dr. Zimbardo was quoted in the same BBC article, stating, “[t] study is the classic demonstration of the power of situations and systems to overwhelm good intentions of participants.”

But other researchers, reviewing the two iconic studies, disagree.

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