Milgram Re-dux

Posted: March 19, 2010 in Findings (links), News, Thoughts
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Okay, I’m a bit late with this so I guess a lot of people already knew, but I found it interesting so here it goes anyway:

In a disputed French documentary, the filmmakers makes a modern version of the Milgram experiment by staging a fake reality tv-show where the contestants are asked to give electric shocks to a man (who they don’t know is an actor), in increasingly high voltages until he dies.

If you don’t know what the Milgram experiment is, it’s basically the same thing, although conducted in the 60:ies. The scene wasn’t a reality show, but a lab, where the testsubjects were asked by the experimenter to give another testsubject (actor) increasingly sever shocks. You can read about it here on wikipedia. Anyhow, the study showed that ~65 % of the participant would go along with the study until the fake test subject died.

Since my studies involve a lot of psychology, my teachers have mentioned this experiment a several times. We’ve also talked about it when we’re studying ethics in the context of research and health care. If I remember correctly, a lot of the participants in Milgram’s experiment were happy to have participated; thet felt that the knowledge about how easily they had been swayed by authority would prevent them from ever doing something similar again. However, other subjects didn’t take it so well and couldn’t come to terms with the fact that they were capable of practically killing a man just because an authority figure told them to.

I think that most people would agree that the Milgram experiment gave a lot of insight and raised a lot of questions on how the human psyche works, although if my teachers are correct, it’s not an experiment that legally could’ve been done in this day and age. It pretty much violates some ethical oaths, especially since you need the test subjects who signs up for the experiment to not really know what it is they’re signing up for. Today, most research with test subjects relies heavily on informed consent, but if the subjects in Milgram’s study already had been informed that they would participate in a study where they would be asked to both risk another persons health and their own psychological wellbeing, it’s probable that the group of test subjects who agreed to this would differ a bit in their mental predisposition from the “average” person.

My point is, even though I’m probably going to see that French documentary out of curiousity, I’m a bit sceptical about the scientific value of their test. First of all, they would have to make sure that the people who participated didn’t know about the Milgram experiment. Secondly, there’s the informed consent issue; the “contestants” in the show had to have at least a clue beforehand about what the test was about. I’m sure most people who showed up also knew what a massive law-suit the TV-company would suffer if anyone actually died as a result, which must have clued them in that this was fake. One could of course argue that they might put too much faith in the producers. The contestants probably trusted them to know what dose of electricity that could be delivered without actually harming the test person. I’m not saying that it isn’t a naïve thing to  believe, but I think both the circumstances and participant’s reasons for obeying were quite different between the French documentary and Milgram’s experiment. Milgram’s experiment was to show how easily and how far we obey authority; the French documentary seems to be more about greed (I’m assuming the “contestants” in the fake TV-show was offered some money. I know the people in Milgram’s study was given some money, but it was like $4 which wasn’t even that much in the 60ies. I could be wrong though) and naivety.

Anyhow, here’s a trailer for the documentary. BTW, if you’re interested in ethically questionable experiments, check out this list. Hell, most of these aren’t even questionable, they’re downright evil. Interesting to read about though. 🙂


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