The Ethics of Obedience

There are few studies in psychology as infamous as Milgram’s study of obedience to authority, which, simply put, found that ordinary people were surprisingly willing to administer larger and larger shocks to a fellow volunteer who incorrectly answered memory questions, just because a man in a white lab coat insisted that they continue. It’s worth watching a reenactment just to get a feel for it:

This is the experiment that inspired my study abroad visit to concentration camps, and one that is sometimes criticized for exonerating Holocaust perpetrators by lending credence to a “just following orders” defense. And after years of having just those original studies to rely on – and the comfort of assuring ourselves that it was a different time back then, and surely we’re too enlightened to obey now – researchers found a way to ethically replicate the study, and found that some 70% of volunteers were willing to deliver a 150-volt shock and to continue past the “learner” insisting that he wanted out. (One of the best detailed considerations of these results, for a general audience, was written by the Cognitive Daily).

As my Research Methods class discussed the steps taken to replicate the study, I was prepared of any number of impassioned comments on this work, but not at all for the one I did get: One of the students – whom I know quite well – reported extreme disbelief and anger, not at any of the classical complaints about the ethics of the study, but at the participants who went ahead an administered the shocks just because some guy in a lab coat was telling them to.

I found myself explaining what is perhaps the most important lesson for psychology students to learn, but also the hardest to learn well: you are not typical. Oh, they might be typical psychology student, or even a typical college student (is there really such a thing?) but they are in no way typical of the population as a whole.

This is actually a problem with the vast majority of psychology research, including my own: The participants are almost always college underclassmen enrolled in Intro Psychology courses who are required to do some form of research participation (if not volunteer for study, then write papers; most choose studies) for course credit. In other words, most of the findings from non-clinical psychology are based on the minds of young adults who are intelligent, motivated and disciplined enough to have made it into college in the first place, and who have at least a passing interest in why people behave as they do. We honestly have no idea how well the “facts” of psychology we divine by studying these students can apply to the non-college educated (even now, still a majority of the population); we just assume they are the same, because otherwise very little research could get done.

With Milgram’s (and now Burger’s) research, psychology students learn that flaw of our science by experiencing that in reverse. It may be fairly easy for young adults who have successfully graduated high school, persuaded a college to accept them, secured financing, and made it through at least one semester of college work to imagine saying “screw you, I’m not administering any more shocks”. Perhaps they’re right – I like to think they’re right – and they would not obey. But Milgram and Burger did not stick to college students, they posted flyers in various neighborhoods to recruit volunteers; and Burger at least excluded anyone who’d taken 2 psychology classes in case they’d heard of the original study. The average person-on-the-street may not feel they can stand up for themselves against an intimidating scientist.

That helped the student let go of anger at the participants, but I took a stab at redirecting it toward me, by telling them that I had no doubt that each one of them would obey, without protest, if the circumstances were right. I am certain that there will come a time that I obey, when I probably shouldn’t – I just don’t know when, or what the precise situation will be.  And that is probably true of all of us, psychology majors or not.


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