Infamous Social Psychology Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments To Analyse Conformity and Obedience

The Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments may sound familiar. They analyzed people’s behaviours particularly their conformity (compliance to an order, request, law or submission to another’s authority) when pressured by scientific representatives or when put in positions of power (prison guards). 

Stanley Milgram’s infamous experience aimed to quantify a volunteer’s “teacher” obedience to authority by making him believe that he was teaching a learner a list of associated words “blue sky, cold wind etc”. For every wrong association “cloudy sky” the volunteer delivers an electric shock to the learner which is incremented with incorrect responses. What the volunteer did not know however, was that the electric shocks were fake and that the learner was an actor – the experiment was not centered on the learner’s ability to learn by punishment but to test the teacher’s obedience. The teacher was also told that the learner had a “heart condition” and that the incremental electric shocks could be lethal (450 volts). The shocks were given via the foot-on-the-door technique, they started small and made the next shock easier. 

Situational social influences can make people act against nature.The volunteer’s compliance increased when the experimenter was considered a legitimate authority figure from a reputed institution, Yale University. The experimenter gave ordered verbal prods every time the teacher expressed doubts in continuing the experiment “whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly, so please go on”. 63% (men) and 65% (women) of participants delivered the doses to the end. Volunteers who resisted did so early on. 

Philip Zimbardo was interested in understanding prison brutality and whether the institutional roles of guard/prisoner could harden initially compassionate people ie when you put inherently good people in an “evil place”. At Stanford University in 1971, American male student volunteers were assigned to be “guards” or “prisoners” in a mock prison. However, several prisoners left amid the experiment, halted 6 days later. Early results reported that “guards” became more authorial over time and imposed psychological tortures on disobedient “prisoners” – declined sanitary conditions, removal of mattresses and forced stripping. It was also argued that most prisoners adopted their new role passively despite a revolt on the second day. However, the replication of this study failed at multiple occasions.

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Modern ethical concerns were raised in both the cited experiments. In Milgram’s experiment volunteers were led to believe they had what it took to kill an innocent person with a heart condition when instructed to do so (deliver 450 volts). What this study implicated was also highly criticized. Indeed, the early experiments were to shed light on Nazi war crimes and how populations could agree to commit acts they would normally condemn. In his experiment, Zimbardo was never a neutral observer as the prison’s superintendent. He made brutality appear necessary for the treatment of prisoners. It was also found that the recruited volunteers displayed increased dominance and aggression with low empathy compared to controls.