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Most People Will Still Torture a Stranger if Ordered

In a recast of an infamous experiment, Polish researchers demonstrate that humans still suck.
Henry Zix, EyeM

The Milgram experiment is one of the most controversial and oft-referenced studies in social psychology. Begun in 1961 by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, the series of tests was designed to probe a subject's obedience to authority. Milgram gave the study added weight by suggesting he wanted to answer the question of whether millions of Nazis could be understood as "just following orders" during the Holocaust. He claimed to find a disturbingly high number of people willing to act against their conscience—if an authority ordered them to do so. Recently, psychologists in Poland replicated the study, and found similar results.


The experiment itself is simple: Subjects are asked by the experimenter to deliver electric shocks to another person. Gradually the shocks increase, often accompanied by screams of pain from the unseen victim. The shocks aren't real, though the participant doesn't know that; if he or she attempts to stop the experiment, the authority figure pushes to continue. The test can continue even after the supposed death of the victim.

Milgram claimed this showed just how susceptible every person could be to authority, even to being pushed past the limits of conscience. His experiment drew controversy not just for its results, but for the ethics of its methods (unwitting subjects forced into a potentially traumatizing experience). Others have disagreed with his conclusion, suggesting that the study can't be transferred to real-world experience, or that it doesn't have anything to do with measuring "obedience" at all.

Despite the debate, the Milgram experiment has taken on a life of its own, jumping from the research world into pop culture. (There's even a TV dramatization starring William Shatner and John Travolta.) Even while researchers may disagree over how to interpret the findings, they've also been able to replicate them—at least partially—in different settings.

The authors of the latest study wanted to see whether Milgram's results could be duplicated in Poland. "It should be emphasized that tests in the Milgram paradigm have never been conducted in Central Europe," they write. "The unique history of the countries in the region made the issue of obedience towards authority seem exceptionally interesting to us."

Ethical considerations prevented them from following Milgram's procedures exactly; they used a similar setup with lower shock levels, recruiting 40 men and 40 women, with ages ranging from 18 to 69. They were asked to press up to ten buttons, each delivering a higher shock.

According to the researchers, 90 percent were willing to deliver the highest shock. They also note that the number of people who refused to deliver the shock was three times higher if the victim was a woman, but because of the small sample size, they refuse to draw any conclusions from that.

As with the original Milgram experiment, these results are open to interpretation. But they do suggest that, more than 50 years later, there's still something captivating about the question of whether human beings will electrocute one another because they were "just following orders."