A new angle on Milgram
Although there is no shortage of resources available for the teaching of many of the so-called “classics” in Social Psychology, such as Milgram’s obedience studies, I thought it was still worth blogging about an article In August 2015’s The Psychologist magazine entitled “Rhetoric and Resistance”.
Stephen Gibson (Department of Psychology and Sport, York St John University) writes about the importance of qualitative data and qualitative analysis to really understand what Milgram’s research tells us about human behaviour. The article, published in the British Psychology Society’s member’s publication, has the potential to offer a familiar context for students to learn about qualitative research methods for A Level Psychology.
Experiments and qualitative research methods
It can be easy for students to get the impression that qualitative research methods are used by researchers who don’t like experimental methods and that researchers might somehow fall into two camps distinguished by those who favour “scientific” experiments and those who prefer the richness and flexibility of qualitative methods. Many experiments in Psychology aim to tell us what humans might do under particular conditions but qualitative methods are also often employed and are vital for telling us why participants might have behaved in a particular way. Both Asch and Milgram gathered extensive data from post-experimental interviews in order to try to find out why they did or did not conform or obey and the content of these interviews has given insight that numbers alone cannot provide.
Is it really obedience or something else…?
The author of the BPS article focusses on an often overlooked source of qualitative data collected by Milgram which has the potential to challenge assumptions made about what Milgram’s study revealed about human nature. In his classic obedience studies, where a participant is given an order to give electric shocks to confederate for making errors in a memory test, Milgram revealed high levels of “obedience” measured by a willingness to deliver a shock to the “learner” (the confederate) up to 450 volts. Stephen Gibson, however, suggests that the audio transcripts of the interactions between the participant and the experimenter issuing the order reveal a social process that may not actually be obedience at all. Gibson suggests that contrary to popular belief the audio reveals that the experimenter did not stick to the standardised “script” and appeared able to improvise in their interactions much more than reports of the study seem to suggest was the case. This might suggest that participants showed more resistance to the request to carry on and deliver the shock than the quantitative data might imply. The validity of Milgram’s research, therefore, may be in doubt if this source of data is taken into account.
The BPS article includes a section of the transcript of the audio from the experiment where a participant is asking for reassurance from the learner that they are ok and willing to continue. Although we might assume that the experimenter would have simply repeated that the participant must continue, the audio reveals a much more drawn out discussion involving some negotiation rather than standardised orders.
The author points out that it is the recording of this qualitative data that makes this scrutiny possible and makes the case that it is important to gather qualitative data and recordings of the interactions between participants and investigators in experiments, rather than focus solely on the outcome of the experiment.
In the A Level Psychology classroom
The article caught my eye because it offers an angle that could be useful for exploring concepts related to qualitative data analysis and the validity of the experiments such as Milgram’s (AQA AS Psychology – Social Influence 3.1.1: How well does Milgram’s research actually enable us to explain obedience?; 188.8.131.52 Data handling and analysis: the difference between quantitative and qualitative data; AQA A Level – 4.1.1 Social influence; 184.108.40.206 Data handling and analysis: content analysis, coding, thematic analysis).
The article ends with the following line: “If we attempt to analyse what happens in experiments without exploring the use of language, we risk missing the social processes that should be at the heart of the study of social Psychology”. I love quotes to stimulate discussion in lessons and I think this closing line from Stephen Gibson would make a great starter or plenary for a lesson on Milgram’s research which has the potential to either simply introduce the importance of qualitative research methods or as an extension for those who you are encouraging to take opportunities to develop their critical thinking skills.
The article includes extracts of the transcripts of the audio of the interaction between the participant and the confederate acting as the experimenter. If you are not eligible for membership with the BPS you can become an e-subscriber for a small annual fee and access the full article and much much more…
Zimbardo video highly recommended
Philip Zimbardo shares his ideas about why good people do bad things and how we can all be heroes in his TED talk filmed in 2008 on the Psychology of evil.
TED Talks for inspiration
The organisation TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) hold two annual knowledge sharing events featuring international speakers from a wide range of disciplines. These talks are shared online at www.ted.com/talks. TED 2012 is currently in progress (at time of post).
Philip Zimbardo on monsters and heroes
As part of TED 2008, Philip Zimbardo was invited to talk about his research. Zimbardo talks for 23 minutes about the Lucifer Effect, his experience as an expert witness in the Abu Ghraib trial, his ideas about where “evil” behaviour comes from (the influence of disposition, situation and the system/institution) and, of course, his famous Stanford Prison experiment (with some interesting footage of a participant talking about the initial suppose arrest phase of the study). Zimbardo also talks about Milgram’s research (AS Unit 2, Social Influence) and the power of deindividuation and anonymity (useful for A2 Aggression in Unit 3). The video contains some powerful, yet distressing, footage from the Abu Ghraib trial which may or may not be appropriate for the classroom but is certainly thought provoking.
After all the focus on negativity Zimbardo turns to a more positive outcome of understanding the impact of the situation and the system on the individual. In his closing argument he proposes that we should all see ourselves as “heroes in waiting”, as he puts it, because just as the situation can create the power that makes us to do something “bad” it can also give us the opportunity to do something “good” if we take the opportunity presented to us. He goes on to argue that heroes are ordinary people and outlines some interesting examples of ordinary heroes.
AS Unit 2: Social Influence
This may provoke an interesting discussion in the rather vague “social change” part of the AS spec for Social Influence (Unit 2). Zimbardo’s ideas about being a hero and speaking out suggest that social change can occur when individuals or groups see others given “power without oversight”, as Zimbardo describes it in his video. When an individual or group speak out against atrocious behaviour and expose the wrongdoings of a system, social change can occur.
In the classroom
Here are some possible uses of the video as a learning resource:
- Zimbardo’s TED Talks video could be shown as part of a Psychology Society/club as an “after hours” screening and hold a seminar style discussion afterward to talk about the ideas presented (or put a link on your VLE)
- Use parts of the video in class to compliment teaching of Milgram and Zimbardo’s studies as part of AS Psychology and/or study of Aggression at A2
- Recommend this a video for all Sixth Formers to see in your Sixth Form (as part of an PSHE or Personal Development style programme) to explore the idea of the “ordinary hero” and being aware of the damage done when power is given without responsibility or transparency
The Psychologist (June 2012): Milgram and Ethics
Whilst on the subject of social influence, it’s worth pointing out that June’s The Psychologist (BPS, vol. 2, no 6) included an article on a replication of Milgram’s electric shock obedience study carried out in France in 2010, in the context of a game show. This study was reported in the media (e.g. BBC news online) back in 2010 but has just been published in the European Review of Applied Psychology (“The prescriptive power of the television host”; Beauvois, Courbet and Oberlé, 2012). The study is most noteworthy for yielding an 81% obedience rate (450 volts applied to the “other contestant”) compared with Milgram’s – already alarming – 62.5%.
I remember when I was studying my A Level Psychology being told that studies such as Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s would never happen again due to the ethical issues. According to the BPS article (The Psychologist) the researchers in the French study did not feel that the procedure was unethical, hence their replication. The article provides a useful stimulus for studying obedience and ethical issues in Psychology.