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The Science of Evil

- December 17, 2007

Could the classic Milgram obedience studies be redone today? Ask a hundred social scientists and I’ll bet you’ll get a hundred answers of “No!” In an age of heightened attention to issues of propriety in research and aggressive monitoring by institutional review boards, nobody could get away with bringing naive subjects into the lab and creating, via deception, a situation in which they end up administering electric shocks to another person (who, in reality, is a confederate of the researcher and is in on the joke). Or could they?

Jerry Burger, a psychology professor at Santa Clara, suspected that it could be done, and he set out to see whether he was right. To get approval for his project, he modified some of Milgram’s procedures (e.g., by stopping at 150 volts instead of going all the way up to Milgram’s limit of 450, by screening out “individuals who might have a negative reaction to the experience,” and by debriefing subjects immediately after the session).

The results? Burger “was constantly surprised by the participants’ enthusiasm for the research both during the debriefing and in subsequent communications.” That’s the good news. The bad news is that “today people obey the experimenter in this situation [that is, at the 150-watt level] at about the same rate they did 45 years ago.”

An overview of Burger’s project appears in the December issue of the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer, here. This project was the subject of an ABC “Primetime” program titled “The Science of Evil”; to watch the webcast version, click here.