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Stanley Milgram's experiments: The debate continues in the British Journal of Social Psychology

26 February 2018

More than 50 years on, Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority are still being discussed.

In a commentary published online by the British Journal of Social Psychology and made freely available, Professor Alex Haslam (University of Queensland) and Professor Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews) look at how the actions of the participants in his experiments should be understood in the light of new information.

The participants were members of the public recruited through a newspaper advertisement to take part in what appeared to be an experiment on learning. They were asked by the experimenter to give increasingly powerful electric shocks to the learners, who were really actors.

Many participants did, as they thought, give the shocks despite their misgivings, and this has generally been taken as teaching us something important about our willingness to obey authority.

Recently, however, Milgram’s experiments have been revisited and alternative accounts of what they show have been offered.

Last year Hollander and Turowetz – in an article discussed on our Research Digest blog – presented important data from post-experimental interviews with the participants.

In them they responded to various questions about their perceptions of the study and their behaviour. They said they acted as they did, not because they were committed to the experimenter or to science, but because they trusted the experimenter not to let them inflict serious harm.

Haslam and Reicher, while welcoming these interviews as an important contribution to Milgram scholarship, say there are two key reasons why the interviews are consistent with claims that harm-doing is a product of ‘engaged followership’.

 The first is that, in contrast to the data obtained from later post-experimental surveys, the conversational logic of the interviews required participants to defend themselves against an accusation of improper behaviour.

The second is that participants' accounts of their behaviour nevertheless revolved around expressions of trust in the experimenter, and these can be seen as manifestations of shared identity and engaged followership.

However, Haslam and Reicher do say that Hollander and Turowetz’s analysis points to significant ways in which the engaged followership account and its broader implications for understanding perpetrator behaviour can be enriched.

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