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?; 184.108.40.206 Data handling and analysis: the difference between quantitative and qualitative data; AQA A Level – 4.1.1 Social influence; 220.127.116.11 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…
This months The Psychologist (BPS, June 2012, Vol 25, no 6) includes an article, in their News section (page 408), highlighting the issue that UK newspapers often fail to report findings from neuroscience accurately; relying on sweeping sensationalised statements and conclusions which are not back up by the data.
AQA A: How Science Works
The AQA A Psychology specification requires students to:
“appreciate the ways in which society uses science to inform decision making” as part of the requirement to address the How Science Works principles.
Students should become aware through their A Level studies that, as the media is one of many influences on the individuals and bodies that make the decisions that impact on society, it is important that research is reported responsibly. The misreporting of brain-based research, therefore, is potentially dangerous if policies and practices are built on beliefs that come from claims that lack validity and are, in some cases, socially sensitive.
This is regarded as a serious enough issue that researchers at UCL have been investigating how the media represents neuroscience. UCL researchers, Cliodhna O’Connor, Geraint Rees and Helene Joffe, have analysed press reports, based on neuroscience research findings, published between 2000 and 2010 (Neuron, Volume 74, Issue 2, 220-226, 26 April 2012).
The researchers argue that if neuroscientists can anticipate how their findings might end up being reported in the media, and where they could become sensationalised or misunderstood, then they can address this directly in their research to ensure that the findings are not taken out of context or generalised too far beyond the study.
Ideas for the Psychology classroom
Ask students to find articles in the news and scrutinise the articles for language which may have the potential to be misleading or unfounded. This could be a good way to familiarise students with qualitative research methods as they could begin by drawing up a list of words/phrases or features they will be looking for, in a content analysis. For example, an article which uses words such as proof or conclusive rather than suggests or implies may be misleading.
One of the themes identified by the research, and reported in the BPS article, is that journalists tend to use “neuroscience evidence as a way of providing biological support for a social argument”. The article refers to an article entitled “How the Twitter age of rolling information has robbed fans of compassion” (Daily Mail online, 03/06/2009), as example of inappropriate extrapolation. Students could be asked to come up with their own headlines for the research they are studying, identifying ways in which they might be sensationalised or taken out of context (ideal for socially sensitive areas of the spec in AS or A2).
One of the key findings of the study was that there has been a big increase in the amount of articles in the news reporting brain based research. Students could consider why this might be the case. They might consider the following:
- the current dominance of neuroscience within science/Psychology
- the greater availability of methods to measure brain activity, leading to a greater chance of news worthy findings
- the possible influence of social changes on the popularity of neuroscience ideas in the public domain
I haven’t linked this to a specific area of the specification deliberately as it clearly is a subject/discipline wide concern and could be meaningfully addressed in relation to any topic area in either AS or A2.
Although there is no formal assessment within the exams for the individual how science works principles, in many A2 topics where there is a heavy biological slant to research the reporting of these and the misconceptions that arise from taking research out of context will be relevant, appropriate and credit worthy AO2/AO3.