Nov 3, 2015

Social psychology textbooks ignore all modern criticisms of Milgram's "obedience experiments"

Research Digest
October 13, 2015

Some classic psychology experiments, known and discussed far beyond the discipline, have become modern-day myths. Accounts of what happened are frequently simplified and distorted to better convey a powerful revelation about human nature. A perfect example: Stanley Milgram's so-called "obedience experiments", conducted in the 1960s, in which the majority of participants, acting as a "teacher" in a learning task, followed experimenter instructions and gave what they thought was a fatal electric shock to another participant, the "learner", as a punishment for wrong answers.

The usual, disturbing interpretation is that Milgram showed how readily most people will harm others if they are told to do so by authority. Understandably, this has led to a continued fascination with the research, reflected both in popular culture – just this month a new film, The Experimenter, about Stanley Milgram, was aired at the New York Film Festival – and in the academic literature.

Indeed, though Milgram's obedience studies were published decades ago, the rate at which they are cited actually increased between 2007 and 2012. Importantly, part of the reason for this is that several scholars raised new criticisms of the research based on their analysis of the transcripts and audio from the original experiments, or on new simulations or partial replications of the experiments. These contemporary criticisms add to past critiques, profoundly undermining the credibility of the original research and the way it is usually interpreted. That Milgram's studies had a mighty cultural and scholarly impact is not in dispute; the meaning of what he found most certainly is.

However, this is not the picture that any psychology student will discover if they turn to their social psychology textbook, at least not if it's an American text. In a new analysis to be published in Theory and Psychology, Richard Griggs and George Whitehead summarised recent criticisms of the obedience studies and then they turned to the 10 leading and most recently updated social psychology textbooks (in the US, with publication dates from 2012 to 2015) to see which, if any, of the criticisms are featured. The modern criticisms include: When a participant hesitated in applying electric shocks, the actor playing the role of experimenter was meant to stick to a script of four escalating verbal "prods". In fact, he frequently improvised, inventing his own terms and means of persuasion. Gina Perry (author of Behind The Shock Machine) has said the experiment was more akin to an investigation of "bullying and coercion" than obedience.
A partial replication of the studies found that no participants actually gave in to the fourth and final prod, the only one that actually constituted a command. Analysis of Milgram's transcripts similarly suggested that the experimenter prompts that were most like a command were rarely obeyed. A modern analogue of Milgram's paradigm found that order-like prompts were ineffective compared with appeals to science, supporting the idea that people are not blindly obedient to authority but believe they are contributing to a worthy cause. Milgram failed to fully debrief his participants immediately after they'd participated.
In an unpublished version of his paradigm, Milgram recruited pairs of people who knew each other to play the role of teacher and learner. In this case, disobedience rose to 85 per cent.
Many participants were sceptical about the reality of the supposed set-up. Restricting analysis to only those who truly believed the situation was real, disobedience rose to around 66 per cent.
How many of these criticisms feature in modern American social psychology textbooks? None. In a complementary investigation published recently in Teaching of Psychology, Griggs and Whitehead also looked to see if the textbooks gave better coverage to traditional criticisms of the Milgram studies. Only two of the textbooks mentioned long-standing criticisms about the lack of realism in the obedience studies, and only two mentioned methodological criticisms, such as that the participants may have been behaving in a way to support the purpose of the studies. Coverage of ethical concerns was better, though usually with a pro-Milgram bias.

For comparison, Griggs and Whitehead looked at Milgram coverage in general introductory psychology textbooks in the US, and here the findings were more promising. This leads Griggs and Whitehead to ponder whether social psychologist authors of social psychology textbooks are motivated to paint an untarnished version of one of their field's classic studies. Another possibility is that textbook authors believe providing caveats and criticisms of classic studies will spoil and confuse a compelling story. Certainly space is not the issue: coverage of Milgram in terms of textbook pages has increased over time.

These new revelations about textbook coverage of Milgram add to previous analyses by Richard Griggs, showing that other classic studies in social psychology are also given biased treatment in introductory texts, including Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment and Asch's conformity experiments. Griggs has also found that the classic case of Phineas Gage is also covered poorly in textbooks, and that the latest revelations about the classic case of Little Albert are too recent to feature in textbooks.

Griggs and Whitehead call on social psychology textbook authors to remedy their tendentious coverage. "To continue to ignore the flaws and shortcoming of Milgram’s obedience study will not only shortchange our students of an accurate account of this classic study and invaluable practice in critical thinking," they write, "but also continue the ‘giving away’ of biased information, and both of these outcomes would reflect poorly on our discipline."


Griggs, R., & Whitehead, G. (2015). Coverage of Milgram's Obedience Experiments in Social Psychology Textbooks: Where Have All the Criticisms Gone? Teaching of Psychology, 42 (4), 315-322 DOI: 10.1177/0098628315603065

Richard A. Griggs, & George I. Whitehead III (2015). Coverage of recent criticisms of Milgram’s obedience experiments in introductory social psychology textbooks Theory and Psychology

Image: a still from The Experimenter movie

--further reading-- The six forms of resistance shown by participants in Milgram's notorious "obedience studies" Milgram's obedience studies - not about obedience after all? Psychologist magazine special issue on Milgram.
Foundations of sand? The lure of academic myths and their place in classic psychology

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
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