What 1960s Psychology Got Wrong About The Human Capacity For Evil

03/13/2015 08:23 am ET | Updated Mar 16, 2015

Remember Milgram's classic experiment on obedience to authority? Anyone who's taken Psych 101 will recall the infamous 1963 study, in which participants were asked to administer increasingly painful electrical shocks to an innocent person.

The experiment, conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, revealed that an overwhelming majority of people would follow orders to administer the maximum shock, even if they felt uncomfortable about hurting another person (who was actually an actor pretending to be in pain).

Milgram's disturbing findings have often been used to explain how ordinary people can be convinced to follow ruthless leaders like Hitler.

But new research is raising questions about Milgram's conclusion. Are most people really capable of such evil? And is it really in our nature to blindly obey authority, even when it means hurting others?

Milgram's study gave rise to as many questions as it answered. Until now, however, researchers have been unable to replicate the experiment in its full scope, largely because ethical standards have since been tightened. But a team of Australian and Scottish psychologists found a way to circumvent these ethical challenges, using a new technique called immersive digital realism, which asked a director and a group of actors to re-enact the Milgram experiment.

Milgram's Disturbing Findings: Milgram told his study participants, a group of healthy men in New Haven, Connecticut, that they were involved in research about the effects of punishment on learning. The participants took on the role of "the teacher," tasked with administering electric shocks of increasing voltage to another man, "the learner," whenever he erred on a word recognition task. The learner sat behind a curtain, not visible to the teacher.

Of course, unbeknown to the teacher, the learner was an actor hired by the research team, and didn't actually receive any shocks.

Check out this video to see footage from the famous experiment:

The results were surprising. Even when the learner cried out in pain, hysterically yelling, "Let me out!", 65 percent of the participants continued to raise the voltage, ultimately delivering the maximum shock of 450 volts (by pushing a button menacingly labeled "xxx").

Milgram concluded that it is in our nature to blindly obey orders, even when that means perpetrating acts of evil. "It is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act,” he said.

The Dramatic Re-enactment: For the new study, 14 actors were assigned different characters in a restaging of Milgram's experiment. After the tests, the actors were asked how much they identified with their character, "the experimenter" or "the learner."

The results mirrored Milgram's findings -- the majority of the actors were willing to administer painful shocks, especially when they identified more with the experimenter. However, when the experimenter tried to force them to administer the shock, most actors refused. This suggests that obedience was a matter of choice, and of deliberate allegiance to the experimenter and his cause.

"The more [the actor] identifies with the experimenter and his scientific goals -- and this is something that varies across different versions of the experiment -- the more likely they are to obey," Alex Haslam, a psychologist at the University of Queensland and one of the study's lead authors, told The Huffington Post in an email. "On the other hand, the more they identify with the learner (the victim) -- and this also varies -- the more likely they are to disobey."

Check out this description of the new experiment, courtesy of Vocativ:

What it all means: So, was Milgram right? Are we just zombie-like creatures who follow authority without question, even when it means hurting others?

Not necessarily. While the two experiments did yield similar results, the researchers who conducted the replication had a very different explanation for why this was the case.

"People have always understood Milgram's studies as showing that people are naturally inclined to follow orders," Haslam said. "They aren't. Whether or not they do is a choice, and this is predicated upon a belief in the cause they are being asked to pursue."

Haslam explained that rather than blindly following orders, most people do so because they come to identify with a particular leader and cause, which helps them justify pushing the proverbial button. So when we obey orders, we comply knowingly and willingly.

"People harm others when they are convinced that doing so is necessary to advance a noble cause -- the cause of the 'volk' in Nazi Germany, the cause of science in Milgram," co-author Stephen David Reicher, a psychologist at St. Andrews University in Scotland, said in an email to The Huffington Post. "The real problem is not that people are unaware that they are doing evil. Rather they think they are doing good."

Clarification: Language has been amended to reflect that while no subsequent experiments have replicated the Milgram's original experiments in their full scope, at least one 2009 study represented a "partial" replication.

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