Milgrom, My Generation, My Students, and Me

Due to Mr. Wired’s health problems, the Wired Family spends a lot of time watching educational TV.  National  Geographic, Smithsonian, History and History 2, PBS, and of course, the Science Channel lead the pack.  Last week, on the Science Channel, we had a chance to revisit a cultural milestone I hadn’t thought about in a while—the Stanley Milgrom experiments on obedience, conducted at Columbia University in the early 1960s. I wasn’t personally involved in that study, though it involved students of my age cohort while I was attending another Ivy League school.  But I had occasion to encounter it shortly after I graduated, in essay form, in a textbook I was using to teach freshman English comp at yet a third college. I used the study with my English students for several years. After that, at yet another college, I had occasion to use it again for several years, in a course, required for all psychology majors, on ethics in mental health practice.


Then, last week, thanks to the Science Channel, I discovered that more recent researchers have attempted to duplicate the Milgrom study to the extent possible within the relatively stringent limits of current behavioral science research ethics (see


For the benefit of those readers who have not yet encountered the Milgrom study in either its original form or its more recent incarnation, it goes like this: the subject (S) is recruited for a purported study on the effect of pain on learning.  S is told to read a series of words to his co-subject (C), who is sitting on the other side of a soundproof glass window, wired up to various electrical doohickies.  C is supposed to choose the most appropriate word match within the series.  If he gets it right, S goes on to the next list.  If C gets it wrong, S pushes a button on the electrical doohickey on his side of the glass, which purportedly administers an electrical shock to C. Then S goes on to the next series of words.  Each time C gives a wrong answer, the shock S administers is escalated to a higher voltage.  After a while, C begins to jump and writhe in response to the “shocks.” In the original study, the voltage dial on S’s electrical doohickey  goes into a red zone, marked “danger,” and then to a level marked “extreme danger.”  If S hesitates to give shocks in the danger zone, the white-coated guy (WCG) who appears to be running the experiment tells him, “You must continue,” or “It is essential that you continue,” and keeps saying it until S either continues or pulls out.


The study involved substantial deception, fortunately.  C was actually a confederate in the experiment.  And he wasn’t getting any real electric shocks.  The electric doohickeys were all fakes.  The study had nothing to do with the effect of pain on C’s ability to learn.  Its point was how far the various S’s would go in shocking C. And the finding that shook up most of us in that just-before-the Eichman-trial era was that over sixty percent of the subjects in the original study went all the way to the top of the dial without refusing to continue.


Until last week, I had only read the report on the original study.  But the Science Channel production actually played tapes of some of the original study.  What startled me about them was that even the “refuseniks,” the subjects who had refused to administer potentially dangerous shocks, were painfully polite in refusing.  These were my agemates, my fellow Ivy League college students, just stepping into the wild and blasphemous Sixties.  I couldn’t imagine the refuseniks at my alma mater saying “I’m sorry, but I won’t continue.”  They would have said, to a person (well, to a man, anyway—we women were still a bit more polite) “This is bullsh*t.  I’m leaving.”  Okay, we saw only a few of the tapes of the original study.  Maybe the more forthright speakers got left on the cutting room floor?


The more recent version of the study made several significant changes.  First, the dial on S’s electric doohickey went only to 150 volts, still well within safe limits, rather than all the way into the red zone.  Second, the glass partition between S and C was no longer soundproof. S not only saw C writhing in pain, but heard him screaming and begging to be let out.  Third, the cover on the experiment was blown almost immediately after S either went all the way to 150 volts, or refused to do so.  And finally, the written agreement S signed before the experiment began explicitly stated, and the experimenter repeated orally a couple of times in introducing the experiment to S, that S would be free to stop the experiment at any time, and to leave, without forfeiting any of the money he was being paid for participating.


That last change may have been crucial in motivating at least some of the more recent refuseniks, many of whom cited it when stopping the experiment.  Would the original refuseniks have done the same?  Have we become more law- and lawyer-ridden since the Sixties?  It’s hard to tell.  But the current generation of refuseniks, more or less of the same cohort as my own psychology students, were just as polite about refusing.  No barnyard epithets, no colorful suggestions about where the pay for participation could be placed (viz Hemingway’s deathless telegram advocating that his editor “upshove” an offending book “asswards,”) The numbers came out roughly the same—less than forty percent of the subjects refused to give the most painful shocks.  The white-coated experimenter gave the same admonitions in the same deep, resonating, expressionless voice (“It is essential that you continue”), and nobody appears to have called him a pompous ass. 


I guess we can conclude from this more-or-less-duplicated study that students (the inevitable subject population of most academic studies) have become no better and no worse than their predecessors fifty years ago, and that even the best of us were and continue to be a bunch of mealy-mouthed wimps.  Do check out the videos on “The Milgrom Experiment” if you get the chance.  Or wait for the show to come around on the Science Channel in your neighborhood.



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