Psy­chol­ogy

Ex­per­i­ments in con­form­ity show how the be­hav­iour of oth­ers in­flu­ences us.

New Zealand Listener - - CON­TENTS - by Marc Wil­son

Ex­per­i­ments in con­form­ity show how the be­hav­iour of oth­ers in­flu­ences us.

Among my to-be-watched-again movies is The Ex­per­i­menter, which por­trays the adult life story of Stan­ley Mil­gram. A pro­fes­sor at Yale, he con­ducted one of the most con­tro­ver­sial ex­per­i­ments in so­cial psy­chol­ogy. The ses­sions be­gan in 1961, dur­ing the trial of Ger­man Nazi war crim­i­nal Adolf Eich­mann in Jerusalem, at which Eich­mann would say he was sim­ply fol­low­ing or­ders. Par­tic­i­pants in the so-called obe­di­ence ex­per­i­ments were in­structed to ad­min­is­ter what they be­lieved were elec­tric shocks to a “learner”, grad­u­ally in­creas­ing them to lev­els that would have been fa­tal had they been real.

The Ex­per­i­menter is a lit­tle slow and arty, and I find it a bit hard to rec­on­cile ac­tor Peter Sars­gaard’s ro­botic Mil­gram with the “spir­ited, feisty lit­tle man” de­scribed in Morton Hunt’s The Story of Psy­chol­ogy. But the film doesn’t fo­cus only on the obe­di­ence ex­per­i­ments that made Mil­gram notorious.

When a mem­ber of the pub­lic steps into a lift in which four ac­tors stand fac­ing the rear, the “real” per­son turns to face the back, too.

At one point, Mil­gram and wife Sasha (Wi­nona Ry­der) are shown watch­ing Can­did Cam­era, a TV show that res­onated with Mil­gram’s in­ter­est in the stuff of ev­ery­day life. An un­sus­pect­ing mem­ber of the pub­lic steps into a lift in which four oth­ers, all ac­tors, stand fac­ing the rear. Sure enough, the “real” per­son turns to face the back, too. It was a made­for-TV con­form­ity study, and Mil­gram would later adopt a sim­i­lar ap­proach in ex­per­i­ments. He would place con­fed­er­ates on street cor­ners and in­struct them to stare up at an apart­ment win­dow. Sure enough, passers-by stopped to gawk up­ward, clue­less as to why. The more ac­tors there were, the more passers-by joined in.

Re­cent repli­ca­tions of this sim­ple study draw on ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy. An Amer­i­can evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gist and neu­ro­sci­en­tist, An­drew Gallup, has used com­puter mod­el­ling of video of such a sit­u­a­tion to check the con­form­ity count, where peo­ple stand and where they’re look­ing. About a quar­ter of pedes­tri­ans will stop and peer up­wards, but tech­nol­ogy al­lows iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the fac­tors that en­hance con­form­ity. Slower-mov­ing pedes­tri­ans who are mov­ing to­wards the backs of the con­fed­er­ates are more likely to join in, be­cause gaze di­rec­tion is im­por­tant: we tend to look where other peo­ple are look­ing, and that group may be more likely to pick up on this cue.

The Ex­per­i­menter por­trays Mil­gram’s dis­ap­point­ment with the 1976 made­for-TV drama­ti­sa­tion of his obe­di­ence stud­ies, The 10th Level, star­ring Wil­liam Shat­ner as the Mil­gram-like Stephen Turner. Later movies in­spired by Mil­gram’s ideas have been more pos­i­tively re­ceived, how­ever.

John Guare’s 1990 play Six De­grees of Sep­a­ra­tion (which was adapted into a 1993 film) draws on the so-called “small-world” stud­ies Mil­gram pub­lished in 1967. He posted let­ters and in­struc­tions to about 300 peo­ple cho­sen at ran­dom, ask­ing them if they knew a par­tic­u­lar other in­di­vid­ual (liv­ing sev­eral states away). If they did, they were to mail the pack di­rectly to that per­son; if not, they were to for­ward the ma­te­rial to some­one they did know and who they thought may know the tar­get per­son. And so on.

More than three-quar­ters of the pack­ages never made it to the tar­get (mostly be­cause peo­ple didn’t com­ply). But 64 did, av­er­ag­ing just un­der six links in the chain that took them there. Per­haps Mil­gram de­lib­er­ately sought to di­lute his no­to­ri­ety with these more in­nocu­ous works.

The more peo­ple who are look­ing

up, the more likely you will, too.

Con­tro­ver­sial: Stan­ley Mil­gram.

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