Evaluate Milgram’s variation, Experiment 13 (8)

One weakness of Milgram’s Experiment 13, which aimed to disentangle whether people obey orders due to the strength of the command itself or due to the status of the person giving the command, was whether the participants truly believed in the set up; if they did not, the validity of the results is arguably nil.

Milgram himself says that it was a rather awkward situation to contrive. Basically, the procedure follows a very similar course to the other variations except that there are two teachers, one of whom is a confederate. At the point when Mr Wallace has been strapped into the chair, electrodes have been fixed up and sample shocks have been administered, Mr Williams supposedly receives a phone call calling him away and then in a fluster, he asks the Pps to conduct the study and get the learner to learn all the pairs. He then leaves and the confederate takes over, insistently telling the real Pps how they can teach the word pairs by administering one shock at a time, increasingly by 15V every time the learner makes a mistake.

Orne and Holland have argued, relating to some of the others variations, that potentially Pps did not believe in the set up and some surely must have questioned that the researchers was apparently leaving two ordinary people in charge of a voltmeter which could give potentially lethal electric shocks.

This said the levels of anger shown towards the “ordinary man” in variation 13a, including one large participant literally throwing the confederate across the room, suggest that the participants really did believe in the set-up, this suggesting that the results were indeed valid.

One the other hand, it could be argued that Milgram did not achieve good internal validity in that the “ordinary man” was not in fact “ordinary” but imbued with a sense of DERIVED AUTHORITY as even when the experimenter was absent, the experimenter had described the study and the idea of administering shocks. Milgram himself says that “authority was hovering in the background”.

In this study the obedience rate was 20%, much lower than the original 65% however had the command come from a truly ordinary person, in a situation that had no association with a higher authority figure it might have been even lower.

Despite concerns regarding the internal validity of the study, Milgram had created a well standardised procedure that was used in exactly the same way with every participant meaning he had created a replicable, and thus reliable testing paradigm, which would be useful in exploring individual differences in reactions to the same situation.

Milgram can also be praised for his collection both quantitative and rich qualitative data, in the form of the transcripts of the post-study interviews which were extremely revealing as to why participants were disobedient but also the fact that some Pps exhibit individual differences in terms of their interpretation of the situation, e.g. one Pps who described his admiration for the co-participant which may tell us about how defiance is mediated by personality factors.

This said, the study is highly questionable with regard to ethics, given the level of deception and inconsistent debriefing. What is yet more concerning is the potential for psychological and indeed physical harm invoked particularly in Milgram’s tweaked version of this variation known as experiment 13a. Here, if the Pps was defiant, the confederate acted as though he was angry at the refusal and said he would take control of the shock generator/voltmeter and that the Ps should simply record the duration of the shocks. The real Pps then had to observe the co-participant administering the shocks and Milgram observed their reactions. Here virtually all Pps protested and 5 took physical action against the confederate, or the shock machine (i.e. unplugging it), 4 physically restrained the co-participant and one large man lifted the co-participant from his chair and threw him into the corner of the laboratory and did not allow him to move until he promised not to administer nay more shocks.

These people were clearly extremely agitated by what they were seeing and Milgram had placed them in a situation that made them so angry that they could have injured themselves while attempting to stop the experiment.

In conclusion, it can be seen that this variation shares many similar strengths and limitations with regard to the general set up as his the variations, however it is clear from Milgram’s own reflections that the study does not quite achieve its aim, as the orders are still associated with  the high status experimenter and the environment of Yale.

Despite this, the variation, particularly 13a, has provided a vivid, if rather unethical, insight into the passion that can be aroused when we feel that an under-dog, in this case the learner, is being mistreated. This demonstrates that once freed of the immediate presence of an authority figure, the majority of people in this rather limited sample, were able to use their own moral compass to guide their behaviour and overcome the drive for destructive obedience.