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Clinician's Digest

Replicating Milgram

By Garry Cooper

Stanley Milgram's classic experiments in the 1960s demonstrated that ordinary people would—with encouragement from authority figures—give escalating electric shocks to innocent people so painful that the subjects, who were actually in league with the researchers, would scream in pain. Some critics have dealt with Milgram's troubling findings by pointing out that his studies have never been replicated, making it easier to treat his outcomes as a possible anomaly or even slipshod research. But they continue to haunt us.

When the scandal at Abu Ghraib broke, with its photographs of American soldiers torturing and humiliating prisoners, Muriel Pearson at ABC News Primetime remembered Milgram's studies and asked Jerry Burger, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University who's researched social obedience, to replicate the famous experiment. Burger explained that because of ethical research guidelines put into effect since Milgram's work, it wasn't possible. But he continued to ponder the ABC request, not just for the challenge, but to prove a point.

"People keep saying that what Milgram found could never happen again," Burger says. "But it can be dangerous to think that people change and get better if they haven't." Finally, Burger found a way to partially replicate the study and received the go-ahead from an independent review board.

To deal with the ethical considerations, he made some modifications to the setup of the original study. He stopped subjects at the 150-volt mark, the point at which Milgram's sham confederates first began to protest about the pain and demand to be released. (Milgram talked his subjects into "administering" 450 volts). This helped avoid the main ethical problem with the first experiment: several of Milgram's subjects were traumatized by the sham participants' pleading and screams, and by their enduring shame and guilt about what they'd done.

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