The Modern Milgrim: Benign but Baseless

I mentioned I might add to (or edit) the last post when I received more information about its inspiration. I now have.

One of the most (in)famous experiments of the 20th century involving humans was undoubtedly the Milgram Experiment. It’s one of the studies that was so controversial it motivated laws requiring Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to approve (based upon whether the study was harmless) studies involving human participants. For those who don’t know about it, see the Wikipedia page. For our purposes, it involved having participants think they were shocking someone in an adjoining room (they could hear the other “participant”, which was actually a pre-recorded tape, but could not see them).

A few years ago, several researchers conducted a study to test the relationship between self-interest and “moral choices”. The idea was to show that previous research, by using abstract, non-realistic scenarios instead of immediate, real-time context and consequences resulted in abstract, non-realistic responses from participants. So the researchers first presented an abstract, non-immediate, hypothetical scenario and asked about a choice they would make (receive money or cause another human pain) they would make, and then actually make that decision.

The hypothesis was that people would make more “moral” choices given an abstract, hypothetical situation than a real one. So when they had participants choose whether or not to shock another “participant” (as in Milgram’s study, nobody was harmed; the real participants saw a pre-recorded video of the fake participant’s hand when receiving the electric shock). Moreover, they received more money if they were willing to have the “other participant” receive a stronger shock. The researchers found that when the situation was ‘real”, immediate, and not hypothetical individuals made far less moral choices (i.e., they opted to harm for money when it was “real” rather than hypothetical).

As I mentioned in my last post, my sister (a graduate nursing student) read this study for a class on moral psychology. More interesting, though, was that the class didn’t just read the study they were able to later talk to the lead researcher about it. My sister asked a great question: couldn’t the fact that the participants only saw this disembodied hand rather than a video clip of the person (i.e., something that showed e.g., the pain in their face, their body spasms, etc., rather than just a hand that shook a bit). The response was something like “well, we tried that but it didn’t work”. By “work”, the researcher meant “support our hypothesis”, probably because people were in fact significantly less likely to choose to be paid a bit when seeing another human being, face and all, in visible pain/agony.

Their original results supported the opposite of their later findings. So instead of just giving up, they manipulated the experiment in a way more likely to get participants to choose money over morality, and when this worked they made the same claims they had intended to make had their initial experiment “worked”.

Again, this is the “real” scientific method: if at first you don’t succeed, manipulate the study design and/or the statistical analysis until you can make the claims you wanted to in the first place.

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2 Responses to The Modern Milgrim: Benign but Baseless

  1. Jeff says:

    I enjoy reading the blog. Always have some interesting posts, which of course prompts a response!

    The War of Currents was a fascinating time for scientific endeavors and achievements. It even shows some of the extremes people (scientists) can go to in order to achieve some type of results. Thomas Edison, for example, would stand outside his lab in NY (if I recall correctly) and electrocute animals with some of his assistants to show the dangers of AC. While Tesla would create coils and try to arch electricity over a long distant – wireless energy travel. The crazy thing about it all though, is we now have wireless telecommunications and wireless power transmissions – electric cards can be charged wirelessly. What is even crazier is that electric cars, wireless telephones, and remote control devices were all around during the late 1800s, which is incredible, considering roughly 100 years later we are just now catching up and better understanding some of the practical applications some of these experiments earlier scientists conducted have; who were extraordinary scientist in their own right.

    The entire point, I guess a lot of people missed, were the potential dangers of electricity, as Edison was against Capital Punishment and the use of devices such as the electric chair, while Tesla was all about death rays and particle guns (for peaceful purposes), but like everything in science, it has the potential for abuse. I guess that is why it’s nice to have a well-educated populous when it comes the sciences.

    Needless to say, it also has the potential to be beneficial to society or the human condition. It has even been shown e.g., small voltages of electricity, roughly 5 volts, can help stimulate neurological pathways in someone who has paralysis.

  2. Jeff says:

    Actually its probably way less voltage to stimulate someones nervous system – depending on how its applied. If to much is used it would probably cause further damage and that would be bad.

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