Friday, September 5, 2014

Another 1960's "Scientific Truth" Bites the Dust

Professor Stanley Milgram conducted a study in 1961 and '62 which, he claimed, showed that people were "programmed" to follow orders, no matter how immoral. (The study was prompted by the "following orders" defense offered by German officials and officers that participated in the Holocaust). This study has been used to justify relieving a person of any moral or legal duty when acting at the behest of a superior or authority figure.

The Daily Mail reports on a new study that the conclusion was flawed.  From the article:
However, a paper in the British Journal of Social Psychology, led by Professor Alex Haslam from the University of Queensland and Professor Kathryn Millard from Macquarie University, claims the meaning of the experiment has been widely misunderstood. 
As a result of archival research by Millard - who spent several months researching in the archives at Yale - the team gained access to the feedback that 659 of the 800 volunteers provided at the end of the experiment – after they had been ‘dehoaxed’ by the experimenter. 
Far from being distressed by the experience, the researchers found that most volunteers said they were very happy to have participated. 
Professor Haslam said: ‘It appears from this feedback that the main reason participants weren’t distressed is that they did not think they had done anything wrong. 
‘This was largely due to Milgram’s ability to convince them that they had made an important contribution to science.’ 
‘This provides new insight into the psychology of oppression and gels with other evidence that perpetrators are generally motivated, not by a desire to do evil, but by a sense that what they are doing is worthy and noble.
In other words, it wasn't that Milgram was an "authority figure" per se, but because the participants believed they were serving a greater good. Perhaps his work has application to Nazis who had been propagandized into thinking Jews were evil and had to be destroyed; however, it raises serious questions about applying this theory to, for instance, the negligent driver of a car involved in an auto accident that wants to blame a passenger for his/her pulling in front of another vehicle.

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