Conformity and Obedience

02.10.2020 |

Episode #9 of the course Psychology of evil by Dr. Daniel McGrath


Welcome back! Today, we are going to discuss the findings of some of the most controversial research in the history of psychology, Solomon Asch’s conformity studies and Stanley Milgram’s experiments.

Imagine you have been invited to take part in an experiment to test your vision. You are seated at the end of a table with six other students. The experimenter presents a display that contains a line called the “standard line”. This is followed by a second display with three lines: line A, line B, and line C, which are different lengths. Your task is to announce, out loud, the line that is the same length as the standard line. It’s obvious to you that line B is the correct answer. Yet, to your surprise, student-after-student says line C. Now it’s your turn, do you say line B (which seemed obvious to you initially) or line C, like everyone else?

In 1951, this experiment was conducted by Solomon Asch to study conformity, not vision. The other students were confederates, people who worked for Asch. Asch found that 37% of participants would conform to the answer of the group every time, and 50% would conform to at least half of the presentations. Only 25% resisted and gave the correct answer every time.

Asch demonstrated the power of conformity on our behavior and identified several factors that lead to greater conformity. He found that a group of three or four people is required, and more people didn’t meaningfully increase conformity. Asch also noted that the presence of at least one dissenter, someone who disagreed with the group, strongly decreased conformity. Having one other person say “no” changes things dramatically.

Obedience is even more extreme and occurs when an authority figure demands that a person acts in a certain way. Stanley Milgram was a psychologist at Yale University in the 1960s, during the same time that Adolf Eichmann was on trial for his role in the holocaust. Milgram wanted to understand the role that social forces played in the “banality of evil”. For instance, why would an average German citizen obey the Nazi party and ultimately contribute to the horrors of the holocaust? Milgram hypothesized that under the right conditions, most people would directly obey an authority figure and commit evil acts when directed to do so.

Milgram’s obedience-to-authority experiments were conducted with local residents of New Haven, Connecticut. Each participant was met by a young man in a lab coat and a friendly middle-aged man named Mr. Wallace. Next, the participant was led to believe that they randomly chose the role of “teacher”, and Mr. Wallace chose “learner”. This was actually rigged; all participants were assigned to be the teacher.

As the teacher, they would be required to give shocks to Mr. Wallace (seated in another room) to help him memorize a list of word pairs. After each incorrect answer, the teacher would need to press a switch delivering an electric shock. Milgram’s shock device contained switches marked from 75 volts up to 450 volts, labeled XXX extreme shock. Participants were told that the shocks would not lead to permanent tissue damage. However, little did they know, no actual shocks were delivered.

Milgram wasn’t testing memory, but instead whether or not people would deliver shocks to a complete stranger. As the experiment progressed, Mr. Wallace would increasingly groan and complain, eventually screaming, “get me out of here!”. Participants were also told Mr. Wallace had a heart condition. If the participant indicated that they wanted to stop, the experimenter would provide subtle prods like “the experiment requires that you continue”. Given all of this, how far would participants go in delivering shocks?

Before conducting the experiment, Milgram surveyed psychiatrists and asked them to estimate how many people would go all the way to 450 volts. They estimated less than 1%. Yet, Milgram found that a whopping 65% delivered 450 volts. These findings made major news headlines; the public could not comprehend that an average person would do this.

How could this happen? Milgram illustrated that good people are susceptible to strong social pressures. Milgram also found that reducing perceptions of authority, such as having the experimenter remove their lab coat, decreased obedience. Psychologist Jerry Burger replicated the Milgram experiment in 2009 with similar results. He suggests that four factors increased obedience:

1. The researcher accepted responsibility for any harm that would happen.

2. A gradual escalation from small to larger shocks.

3. It was a novel and strange situation.

4. The experiment happened very quickly.

Milgram demonstrated that situational forces could play a causal role in evil actions. He argued that step-by-step compliance with the orders of an authority figure could eventually escalate to horrific actions. Furthermore, if the person doesn’t feel responsible, they are far more likely to go along with requests. Through these social processes, immoral individuals in a position of power can take advantage of otherwise decent people, and this can lead to committing evil on a mass scale.

In tomorrow’s lecture, we will finish the course by looking at strategies to resist both deceitful individuals and potentially dangerous situational forces. See you then!


Recommended book

Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments by Gina Perry


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