Most people will torture someone if asked

Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University in California has released the results of an experiment that show that most people—70% of us, in fact—are willing to torture someone if they’re asked to.  Burger’s experiment was very similar to the famous ones done by Stanley Milgram back in the 1960s; subjects were asked to give “electric shocks” to a confederate of the experimenter if that person answered questions incorrectly.  With each wrong answer (they were all scripted) the purported strength of the shocks increased (actually, there were no shocks at all).  Seven out of ten subjects were willing to continue past 150 volts and complaints of pain on the part of the subject.

The original Milgram experiments continued up to 450 volts, which most subjects were willing to deliver.  Milgram got the idea for his experiments when considering why so many Germans participated in the holocaust and then later justified or defended their participation by claiming “I was just following orders.”  His experiment proved that most of us will “just follow orders” and do really bad things.

Burger said the experiment, published in the American Psychologist, can only partly explain the widely reported prisoner abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or events during World War Two.

“Although one must be cautious when making the leap from laboratory studies to complex social behaviors such as genocide, understanding the social psychological factors that contribute to people acting in unexpected and unsettling ways is important,” he wrote.

“It is not that there is something wrong with the people,” Burger said. “The idea has been somehow there was this characteristic that people had back in the early 1960s that they were somehow more prone to obedience.”

Wikipedia has a good article on the original Milgram experiments, explaining exactly how they worked, the different variables he used, and the various results.  CNN also has a good article that covers and compares the Milgram and Burger experiments.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] not we think it was intentionally inflicted.  Like the famous Milgram experiments (blogged about here), Gray and Wegner’s study involved electric shocks.  When subjects thought that their […]


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