How obedient are we?

This is for all the “last-benchers”, “class-bunkers” and all those who think they have disobeyed someone at some point of their life.

I came across an article in which an experiment was conducted to show how social situations can affect the way we behave. Read on. 

While reading the Sunday newspaper, Bill notices that a prestigious university is recruiting people to participate in a psychological study designed to help people improve their memory. He decides to volunteer for the experiment as he thinks it is interesting and he will also get paid a fee.

On his arrival at the university’s laboratory, Bill is greeted by the researcher and introduced to a second applicant named Douglas. The experimenter explains that the research study will test a new method of improving people’s learning and memoryby punishing them for their errors.

The task is straightforward: Bill will play the role of the “Teacher” and give Douglas, the “Learner,” a set of word pairings to memorize in a given time period. Every time that the Learner provides the correct answer, the Teacher gives him a verbal reward, “Good” or “That’s right.”When wrong, the Teacher is to press a lever on the impressive looking shock apparatus that delivers an immediate shock to punish the error.

The shock generator has 30 switches, starting from a low level of only 15 V and increasing in intensity all the way up to 450 V. The control panel indicates both the voltage level of each of the switches and a corresponding description of that level. For instance, the 25th level (375 V) is labeled “Danger, Severe Shock.” The experimenter goes on to note that every time the Learner makes a mistake, the Teacher must press the next higher level voltage switch.

The Learner is escorted into an adjacent room, where his arms are strapped down and an electrode is attached to his right wrist. The shock generator in the next room will deliver the shocks to the Learner—if and when he makes any errors. Doug mentions that he has a slight heart condition and hopes the shocks will not hurt him much.

He is reassured not to worry, that the shocks may become strong but will not cause any permanent damage. Bill administers the test material and communicates over the intercom to Doug, while the Experimenter stands near him.

Initially, Doug performs well, getting rewarding praise from Bill. However, he soon starts making errors, for which Bill immediately starts pressing those shock switches. As Doug messes up more and more, the shock levels are going up, and he complains that the shocks are starting to hurt.

At 75 V, he moans and groans; at 150 V, the tenth level, Doug (Learner) has had enough and demands to be released from the experiment. Bill looks anxiously at the Experimenter, who nods that he must continue.

As the shock levels increase in intensity, so do the Learner’s screams, as well as his reminder that he has a heart condition. Bill is now really distressed: “Sir, who will be responsible if anything happens to that man?” The Experimenter dismisses his concern about personal responsibility by declaring, “I will be fully responsible, now continue your task, Teacher.

At 300 V, the Learner demands to be freed and complains louder about his heart condition. Bill has had enough, he verbally dissents,“I can’t continue to hurt him, sir, I refuse to go on.” The Experimenter calmly insists that Bill must continue because he has a contract to complete the experimental procedure.

Reluctantly, Bill goes on punishing Doug for his errors until he reaches the level of 330V. Bill hears screams, a thud, and then silence from the shock chamber.“He is not responding; someone should go in there to see if he is all right.” But the Experimenter is impassive and tells Bill, “If the learner doesn’t answer in a reasonable time, about 5 seconds, consider it wrong.

Now, I will stop here and pose a few questions.

  1. At what shock level do you think Bill stopped the experiment?
  2. How do you think you would act if you were in place of Bill?
  3. At what shock level would you absolutely refuse to continue?

Okay, let me answer the first question for you.

Every two out of three people (500 participants) on whom this experiment was conducted went up to the maximum shock level 450 V !!! And Bill was one of the two.

You would have thought that most of them would have verbally dissented or just walked out of the room right? I mean who would sell out their morality for a few currency notes. Would you?

Thats the power of an authority over you. I would rather call it a social situation.

But remember that although there was a majority that obeyed fully, there was the other one of three people who refused to give in to unjust authority. So what makes people help others, serve the poor or even act heroically?

Welcome to Social psychology. I will share more as I learn more. Stay tuned.

Signing off…

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