Authoritah Followup

As Exador pointed out, the expirement on Primetime that I posted about last week was based on some work done by Dr. Stanley Milgram in 1961. Milgram was apparently inspired by the trial of former nazi Adolf Eichmann who was on trial that year for his war crimes. Eichmann claimed he was only following orders (see also, Abu Graib). So Milgram started looking into authority.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, Milgram is a pretty fascinating person. He's credited with the "six degrees of seperation" concept. He created a 'small world' expirement in 1967 by sending packages to random people and asking them to forward the package to a specific person. If they didn't know that person, then they were asked to send it to someone they do know who is 'more likely than you to know the target person'.

It sounds pretty silly to me. Of course you could never get away with that these days. Anyone who got the package would assume it's drugs or a bomb and get rid of it. I suppose it could work in 1967, but it seems like a long shot. I'd really be interested to see the original paper he published on it, but according to my internet research it didn't get very far. But he is credited with creating the concept that was later mainstreamed by the popularity and prolific career of Kevin Bacon. I can only see it working in small groups or with people who are well known.

But anyway... the topic I meant to talk about is Milgram's expirements on obedience to authority. It's pretty much like the one Primetime ran. Except a little more extreme. Milgram's authority figures were more overbearing, and the 'subject' was put in a lot more pain. His results were pretty much like Primetime's, but with some interesting side effects.

It was pretty controversial due to the extreme stress that Milgram put his test subjects under. The psychiatric community was worried about the guilt and stress his subjects were under as they decided to provide an electric shock to what they thought was another person. I think that was really kind of the whole point. To see how much guilt and stress it took to over ride an authority figure.

You can question his ethics I guess, but it's some pretty useful expiremental data. The subjects caused themselves some extreme stress, but they still consented to cause pain to another person despite the fact that it could cause them serious health issues. All because they were told to do so by a guy in a white coat.


Blogger Sarcastro said...

Milgram's work was dramatized in an 1970's TV movie called, The Tenth Level.

Starring, who else, William Shatner.

11:11 AM, January 16, 2007  
Anonymous Susan said...

I actually use the white coat theory quite a lot in my classroom. I bought doctor's lab coats to wear instead of aprons because they cover everything in case some crazy kid throws a paintbrush in my back. When I wear the coat, the kids call me "Dr. W" and are measurably more subdued. It's completely fascinating to me.

5:02 PM, January 16, 2007  

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