New Study Replicates Stanley Milgram’s Infamous Shock Experiments

iStock / iStock

In the early 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram recruited hundreds of men for a series of experiments on obedience and authority. He asked them to administer a series of increasingly powerful shocks to a person in another room. The man being “shocked” was, in reality, an actor hired by the lab, and the screams of pain the participants could hear from the other room were pre-recorded. Perversely, plenty of the participants obeyed the experimenters’ prompts to hurt strangers.

Half a century later, the Milgram experiments are, though controversial, a bastion of the psychology canon, and a number of modern researchers have set out to replicate his findings. In the latest iteration, a group of Polish researchers found that 90 percent of participants were willing to administer the highest voltage shocks available to another person when asked to—a similarly high number as in Milgram’s original experiments.

In a study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers from the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Wrocław, Poland recruited 40 men and 40 women to participate in a re-make of Milgram’s study. However, in this case, both those administering the shocks and those “receiving” the shocks were a mix of men and women, while in Milgram’s experiments both the participants and the actors were men.

Like Milgram’s subjects, they were told they were participating in a study on memory and learning and that they would be playing the part of the teacher, while the other person in the lab (an actor) would be the student. The “student” was supposed to learn associations between certain syllables, and the "teacher" was instructed to read a set of those syllables aloud. The teacher was given 10 buttons that they were told would administer shocks of increasing intensity. When the student made a mistake, the experimenter instructed the participant to shock him or her. The student was hidden behind a wall, but the participants could hear pre-recorded screams of pain.

The participants were initially told they could stop the experiment at any time and that stopping would not require them to give back the $15 they had received for their participation. But once the shocks started, the experimenters urged the participants to continue shocking the student despite any reservations they expressed. The experimenters used phrases similar to those Milgram employed, such as “The experiment requires that you continue,” “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” and “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

A full 90 percent of the participants went on to press the 10th button, administering what they thought was the highest voltage of shock.

Whether or not people were willing to continue shocking strangers may have been influenced by the gender of the stranger, the study’s authors write, though the effect was small. “When it was a woman being ‘zapped,’ participants were 3 times more likely to withdraw from the experiment (regardless of their own sex). However, the fact that only 10 percent of our participants failed to perform all of the experimenter’s commands means that this difference is far from statistically significant.”

According to the study, this is the first time Milgram’s experiments have been replicated in Central Europe, where relationships to authority may be different than in the New Haven, Connecticut community Stanley Milgram recruited from. As a Soviet state for decades, Polish freedoms were severely restricted, and both in school curriculums and in the culture at large, there was a strong emphasis on obedience to authority. Though the collapse of the Soviet Union brought democratic elections, free speech, and a free press, some of those liberal ideals have seen a reversal in recent years as the hard-right Law and Justice party has gained power.

This study was relatively small, and larger studies might be able to confirm whether the gender of the person being shocked might influence people’s willingness to go along with the experiment. The high percentage of people who followed instructions, though, suggests that Milgram’s dim view of human nature wasn’t wrong. People really can be bullied into hurting other people pretty easily. Still, it would be interesting to replicate these studies with larger, more culturally diverse groups of people, examining how participants’ inherent views on authoritarianism and obedience might influence their responses.