09:18pm Sunday 12 July 2020

Just following orders? Obedient zombies in the spotlight

Stanley Milgram’s studies on obedience are widely understood to demonstrate people’s natural inclination to obey orders from those in authority, without question.

UQ School of Psychology researcher Professor Alex Haslam suggests it is not blind obedience that drives people to engage in harmful behaviour, but rather a sense that they are part of a worthwhile project for greater good.

“We found that when it comes to harming others, people are not zombies who follow orders without thinking,” Professor Haslam said.

“They make active choices on the basis of appeals to objectives that they see as valuable and important.”

Milgram’s study demonstrated that members of the public were willing to administer apparently lethal electrical shocks to a stranger because they were asked to by an experimenter.

The 50-year-old study could not be replicated today as it would not pass ethical guidelines.

The contemporary study involved participants facing a choice of five negative adjectives to describe images of groups of people.

These groups became increasingly more appealing across a series of 30 trials

As participants began to falter in the task of describing a positive group in negative terms, they were given instructions or “prods” from of Milgram’s original experiment. 

“The most basic of these prods asked them to ‘please continue’, another told them ‘the experiment requires that you continue’, and finally they were told ‘you have no other choice, you must continue’,” Professor Haslam said.

He said the key question was whether participants would be more likely to continue when the experimenter appealed to the study’s scientific goals or when he issued an order to continue.

“In line with our theorizing, the results showed that the most successful instruction wasn’t an order, but rather an appeal to advance what they saw as a valued scientific enterprise,” Professor Haslam said.

The study, published in the Journal of Social Issues, was a joint project between Professor Haslam, Professor Stephen Reicher at the University of St Andrews and Dr Megan Birney at the University of Exeter.  

Media: UQ Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences Senior Marketing and Communications Officer Helen Burdon, 07 3365 7436 or 0412 744 437, [email protected].

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