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Experiment showcasing humanity’s ‘dark side’ may offer a way to control it

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It was an infamous experiment, one on obedience and reprehensible behavior done in 1961. With memories of Holocaust atrocities and the prosecution of Nazi officials at Nuremberg still fresh, psychologist Stanley Milgram made history. You may not remember the name per say, but chances are you know his work.

About two-thirds of Milgram’s nearly 800 study subjects, pressed by an authoritative experimenter, were willing to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to an unseen stranger despite cries of agony and pleas to stop.

“Milgram claimed to have found sort of a dark side to human nature that people were not quite as attuned to,” says Matthew Hollander.”His study participants were much more likely to obey than he expected, and that was an understandably uncomfortable result.”

Milgram divided his subjects into just two categories: obedient or disobedient. After reexamining the experiences of more than 100 of Milgram’s participants however, researchers see a great deal more nuance in their performances—and maybe a way to prevent real-world occurrences of authority overriding ethical judgment.

“The majority did cave, and follow the experimenter’s orders,” says Hollander. “But a good number of people resisted, and I’ve found particular ways they did that, including ways of resisting that they share with the people who ultimately complied.”

This unprecedentedly deep conversational analysis of audio recordings of the experiments yielded six practices employed against the repeated insistence of Milgram’s authority figure.

Some are less insistent. The group found study subjects resorting to silence and hesitation, groaning and sighing to display the effort it took to comply, and (typically uncomfortable) laughter.

They also found more explicit ways to express their discomfort and disagreement. Subjects stalled by talking to the recipient of the shocks and by addressing their concerns to the experimenter. Most assertively, they resorted to what Hollander calls the “stop try.”

“Before examining these recordings, I was imagining some really aggressive ways of stopping the experiment—trying to open the door where the ‘learner’ is locked in, yelling at the experimenter, trying to leave,” Hollander says.

“What I found was there are many ways to try to stop the experiment, but they’re less aggressive.”

Most often, stop tries involved some variation on, “I can’t do this anymore,” or “I won’t do this anymore,” and were employed by 98 percent of the disobedient Milgram subjects studied by the researchers. That’s compared to fewer than 20 percent of the obedient subjects.

Interestingly, all six of the resistive actions were put to use by obedient and disobedient participants.

“There are differences between those two groups in how and how often they use those six practices,” says Hollander. “It appears that the disobedient participants resist earlier, and resist in a more diverse way. They make use of more of the six practices than the obedient participants.”

Therein lies a possible application of this new take on Milgram’s results.

“What this shows is that even those who were ultimately compliant or obedient had practices for resisting the invocation of the experimenter’s authority,” says Douglas Maynard.

“It wasn’t like they automatically caved in. They really worked to counter what was coming at them. It wasn’t a blind kind of obedience.”

If people could be trained to tap practices for resistance like those outlined in this analysis, they may be better equipped to stand up to an illegal, unethical or inappropriate order from a superior. And not just in extreme situations:

“It doesn’t have to be the Nazis or torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or in the CIA interrogations described in the recent U.S. Senate report,” Maynard says.

“Think of the pilot and copilot in a plane experiencing an emergency or a school principal telling a teacher to discipline a student, and the difference it could make if the subordinate could be respectfully, effectively resistive and even disobedient when ethically necessary or for purposes of social justice.”

Good news for anyone who might find themselves in a morally compromising position in which an authority figure is calling the shots. Frankly we all have a moral and ethical obligation to our fellow humans and any tools to help us as a whole should be embraced.

Sources:
Hollander, M. (2015). The repertoire of resistance: Non-compliance with directives in Milgram’s ‘obedience’ experiments British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12099

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