For readers unfamiliar with Milgram's experiments, they showed that,
depending a little on detailed circumstances, many or most American
subjects would administer what they thought was likely to be a lethal
shock to a stranger, at the command of an authority about whom they
knew very little. They only had to be told 'the experiment requires
that you continue.' They thought the experiment was on the use of
punishments in teaching. The results are among the most depressing in
Even if there were no issue of physical risk or discomfort, I don't
believe that it is legally possible to recreate Milgram's brilliant
experiments in the U.S. There are now human subject rules for
experiments performed by at least most institutions, requiring that
experimental subjects be fully informed about the experiment. Of
course, Milgram's subjects could not have been informed what the
experiments were about without ruining the experiments.
Shortly before the human subjects rules were adopted, a friend of
mine did some experiments to try to find out under what circumstances
people would rebel against unjust authority. It was thought that these
experiments might provide a silver lining to the Milgram results.
Nothing very dramatic emerged until the subjects found out that all the
stories they had been told about their participation were false. They
then rebelled and smashed the video cameras. My friend ended up in a
different line of work.
Milgram started his experiments in 1961 and published them in 1963.
Back then, people had much more confidence in scientists conducting
experiments on human subjects. As modern laws attest, there is now a
presumption of enormous suspicion on such experiments. Nonetheless,
evidence even from last week suggests that people will still conduct
ethically questionable or even horrible experiments on human subjects
when asked to do so by some authority. This news story
is somewhat incomplete about the details of the study, now canceled due
to ethical complaints, to investigate the effects of pesticides on
children. That the study had originally gotten started indicates that
people would be willing to participate as data gatherers in the study,
which follows Milgram's results.
(republished on 07/19/06)