Milgram’s work replicated

For those of you who haven’t heard, Jerry Burger, a psychologist from Santa Clara University in California has replicated the Milgram experiment from 1961. The full article will be a special supplementary of the January issue of American Psychologist. Here is a link to the story as reported on
Charting the psychology of evil, decades after ‘shock’ experiment

For most of us who work or teach in the area of research ethics, when we talk about experiments like Milgram’s, typically to initiate a classroom discussion on whether or not “bad ethics” necessarily implies “bad science”, we usually end by saying something definitive like, “But most ethics review boards would never allow Milgram’s work to be done today.” Arguably, a perfect replication of the Milgram study couldn’t happen today with ethics review board oversight of research. The level of deception and degree of potential psychological risk would not be viewed as justifiable by the degree of expected benefit. In Burger’s experiment, he included a number of strategies, some of which were in place, arguably, to mitigate potential risk. These included pre-participation screening by a clinical psychologist to exclude anyone who was felt would be negatively affected by taking part, an informed consent process that included reminding participants on an ongoing basis about the voluntary nature of participation and their right to withdraw at any time with full compensation and finally, a maximum delivery voltage of 150 volts compared to 450 volts in Milgram’s experiment (150 volts was the point at which most people in Milgram’s work hesitated or demonstrated some degree of reluctance to continue). Additionally, the sample shock delivered to Burger’s participants (to show them that the machine was “real”) was much lower. While Milgram delivered a (pretty painful) shock of 45 volts to all participants to help convince them that the machine was real, Burger only delivered a sample shock of 15 volts – which is still painful.

There are plenty of questions that remain about Burger’s work (some much broader, including what many people are wondering, “Was there a good scientific reason to replicate this work in the first place? What more do we need to know?”). Hopefully, some of these will be answered in the American Psychologist article in January. I’ll post an update once the article is published.

~ by Nancy Walton on December 21, 2008.

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