Would you deliver an electric shock at someone's orders? A new take on the Milgram experiment shows the answer is likely still yes

More than 50 years ago, American social psychologist Stanley Milgram found that, when prodded by someone in charge, just about every one of us would do something that most would find deeply disturbing: comply with an authority figure’s stern directive to deliver painful electric shocks to an unseen (but loudly protesting) person who answered a question incorrectly.

Thanks to a new study, we now know that this was true in 2015 as well. In Poland.

In research that sought to replicate and broaden Milgram’s findings, psychologists at Poland’s University of Social Sciences and Humanities found that 72 out of 80 research subjects complied with experimenters’ directions to administer a series of electric shocks to a supposed research subject in the next room, culminating in a shock of 450 volts.

During the experiment, participants could hear screams of increasing distress from a person in the next room who they understood to be the recipient of their punishment. After the final 450-volt shock, participants were asked, “Do you think it hurts?” All but one (who suspected the screams were a ruse) said yes.

The Polish study’s subjects had been told they could end their participation in the study “at any moment.” And yet, nearly all of them complied with the authority figure’s stern reminder that another, stronger shock was required.

The results are in line with those generated by some of Milgram’s experiments, in which participants escalated up a scale of 10 shock levels. In what is referred to as “Experiment No. 2,” 34 of 40 people — 85% of participants — did not quit before delivering what they thought was the most powerful shock.

“After 50 years, it appears nothing has changed,” said social psychologist Tomasz Grzyb, an author of the new study, which appeared this week in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“People always say, ‘I would refuse! That is totally against the rules!’” Grzyb said. “But when we create the same situation, 90% of them are willing to deliver a painful shock.”

With some tweaks here and there, the obedience experiments conducted by Milgram have been repeated — and their findings replicated — many times since they were first published in 1963.

And still, they never fail to amaze, said Santa Clara University psychology professor Jerry M. Burger, who replicated Milgram’s findings in 2009.

When his students learn about the Milgram experiments for the first time, they invariably protest that the study subjects were unique to their time and place, Burger said. Those subjects came from a generation of conformists, the students say, a generation that came before civil rights.

“We’ve changed,” Burger says they tell him. “We’re better than that now.”

Burger tells them they’re wrong.

Milgram’s work reveals little about individual differences in, say, empathy. In Burger’s experiments, even subjects that scored high on empathy obeyed the authority figures and delivered harsh shocks.

Nor does Milgram’s work reflect the values Americans embrace as a culture, Burger said. The Polish authors are merely the latest researchers to replicate Milgram’s work outside the United States.

However shocking and ethically fraught Milgram’s experiments were, they reveal the power of a distinctive social situation to override our individual inclinations and even our cultural norms, Burger said. Caught in the middle — between the power of an authority figure and our own qualms — we are more often creatures of expectation than we are creatures of personal conviction.

“When we stand at a distance, we say, ‘I think I’d never do that.’ But we’ve done the studies,” he said. “And we know that the average person does do these horrible things, in certain social situations.”

The new study also explored a new dimension of social conformity: whether participants — male or female — would deliver painful shocks to subjects they believed were women.

Though participants were a little less likely to shock someone they thought was a woman, the difference was not large enough to hold up to statistical scrutiny.

Grzyb pointed to one bright light in the Polish experiment. One of the eight participants who declined to obey the experimenters and quit before delivering the harshest shocks was a political prisoner of Poland’s repressive pre-1989 government. This individual was an early adherent of the Solidarity Party, which spearheaded Poland’s break from the Soviet Union.

After delivering three graduated shocks, and after four exhortations to continue, “he absolutely calmly said, ‘No, I won’t do that,’” Grzyb said. The subject said he had been ordered to do many things — including spying against Solidarity — and had refused.

Not 30 years after Poland threw off the Soviet Union’s yoke, its citizens are leaning ever closer to authoritarianism, Grzyb noted. At this moment, he added, “it’s very important to show people like him and tell their stories.”

melissa.healy@latimes.com

@LATMelissaHealy

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