Milgram revisited

The NY Times reports on the continuing debate in psychological science over the ramifications of a famous experiement conducted nearly a half-century ago by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram.

[Milgram’s] obedience studies of the early 1960s… together form one of the darkest mirrors the field has held up to the human face. In a series of about 20 experiments, hundreds of decent, well-intentioned people agreed to deliver what appeared to be increasingly painful electric shocks to another person, as part of what they thought was a learning experiment. The “learner” was in fact an actor, usually seated out of sight in an adjacent room, pretending to be zapped.

Researchers, social commentators and armchair psychologists have pored through Milgram’s data ever since, claiming psychological and cultural insights. Now, decades after the original work (Milgram died in 1984, at 51), two new papers illustrate the continuing power of the shock experiments — and the diverse interpretations they still inspire.

The article raises some excellent criticisms of Milgram’s research (chief among which are the ecological validity issues inherent in any ‘lab’ experiment), but also points out other researchers’ evidence that converges with Milgram’s findings.  If you’ve never read Milgram, I recommend his work for anyone interested in judgment/decision-making, group dynamics, and the psychology of power and control.


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