Would you deliver a painful electric shock to another human being if an authority figure told you to do so?
This was a question that Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram sought to answer with a series of experiments that began in 1961. Prompted by Adolf Eichmann's trial for Nazi war crimes, in which Eichmann defended his abhorrent human rights violations as staunch obedience to Hitler's orders, Milgram wanted to see whether Eichmann and other Nazi accomplices were an anomaly or represented some part of human nature we did not understand.
In the original experiment, a volunteer was instructed to act as a teacher and give a quiz to a student. When the student gave incorrect answers, one of the researchers would tell the teacher to give him an electric shock. The shock increased with intensity as more wrong answers were given.
The student was actually not being shocked at all, but he expressed physical pain and suffering in the presence of the teacher, who believed the simulation was real. To Milgram's astonishment, 65 percent of participants in his study chose to shock the student when instructed to do so, brushing aside the student's obvious signs of distress and, in some cases, their own deep reservations.
Fast forward five decades, well after Milgram's work became notorious, and a team of social psychologists from SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland decided to recreate the experiment for their own study. Their results appear in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Again the aim was to discover whether people would shock a fellow human being when prompted by a person of authority, despite the fact that most people insist that they would never do such a thing.
"It should be emphasized that tests in the Milgram paradigm have never been conducted in Central Europe," the authors write. "The unique history of the countries in the region made the issue of obedience towards authority seem exceptionally interesting to us."
RELATED: Getting Good People to Go Bad
In the modern update, the researchers wanted to assess the obedience of subjects in Poland and compare the results with those obtained by Milgram more than half a century earlier. They also wanted to know whether or not the gender of the participants would have any effect on the results.
The study consisted of 80 volunteers, 40 men and 40 women, ages 18 to 69. There were four types of student-teacher combinations: male/male, male/female, female/male, and female/female. Every teacher had 10 buttons to press, each one delivering a higher level of "shock" to the student. As in the original trials, the shock was not real but volunteers were unaware of this.
Illustration of the setup of a Milgram experiment. The experimenter (E) convinces the subject ("Teacher" T) to give what he believes are painful electric shocks to another subject, who is actually an actor ("Learner" L). Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Because Milgram's work was criticized for ethical considerations, given the stress that many of his subjects felt as they inflicted what they thought was excruciating pain on another person, the researchers in Poland used a lower simulated pain threshold.
"When we ask people how they would behave in such circumstances they almost [always] say, 'Well, I wouldn't do that. Maybe someone else but not me,'" Tomasz Grzyb, a social psychology researcher at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities and one of the study's authors, told Seeker. "But in the real situation, a majority just follow the orders made by authority."
"For the first time in history, as far as we know, we put a woman as a person receiving electric shocks," Grzyb added. "We wanted to check if this new situation somehow influenced people's behavior. It turned out that it changes nothing."
A full 90 percent of participants were willing to deliver the highest level of shock possible when instructed to do so by one of the researchers. The gender of the person receiving the shock had little effect on their decision. The results showed that not much has changed in 50 years.
The presence of authority is the key factor in this type of experiment, Gryzb explained
"What we show in our study is an exceptional role of situation and authority standing nearby," he said. "Almost all of our participants declared huge discomfort during study. They wanted to refuse, but they just weren't able to."
Before beginning the experiment, researchers had hypothesized that Polish people in particular might be more willing to refuse authority than other cultures given the popularity of certain "historical myths" regarding their resistance to oppression, whether under the Nazis or the Soviets. But this history had no apparent effect on a Polish person's ability to refuse authority.
"You must know that in Poland there is a long tradition of thinking about Poles as 'first to fight,' 'resistant,' and 'immune to persuasion,'" Grzyb remarked. "We found that we are exactly the same as others."
Other researchers have conducted experiments like this all over the world with similar results.
"Milgram studies [have been] replicated in many cultures — individualistic, collectivist, goal-oriented, Western, Arabic, and so on," Grzyb said. "In all of these cultures, the level of obedience was terrifyingly high."
If anything can be learned from such work, he suggested, it's that society is responsible for allowing these circumstances to exist.
"What our study really shows is that in some circumstances all of us are able to hurt innocent people," said Grzyb. "This teaches us something — that we are responsible for creating mechanisms and rules which don't allow such circumstances to happen."