Sunday, July 7, 2013

Milgram Returns - The Obedience Experiments 50 Years Later

A bit off the beaten path of marketing and consumer behavior issues, I can't help but signal a rapidly-approaching seminal event: the 2013 Obedience to Authority Conference, which will take place from August 6-8 in Bracebridge, Canada, two hours from
Toronto in the Muskoka lake-district of Ontario, Canada.  Co-convener Nestar Russell and his team have lined up 50 international panelists and presenters to discuss 50 years of rumination, debate, implications, and replications of Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments.   The full program is available here, headlined by keynote speaker, Thomas Blass, Milgram's biographer who also happened to have been my social psychology professor at the University of Maryland during the early 1970s.  It was in that class that I first learned of the obedience project and I have written extensively about it during ensuing decades, particularly in my research ethics books.  Blass will give a talk entitled “The impact of the obedience experiments on contemporary culture and thought.”

Milgram may be better known among consumer behavior researchers for his small world concept, which gave rise to the '6 degrees of separation' notion (both discussed in detail in my book, Connecting With Consumers as well as Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point). But Milgram's deceptive research design has informed much discussion in the consumer behavior literature regarding the appropriateness of informed consent violations in research with human participants.  Among the general public, the most disconcerting aspect of the research, which involved the bogus delivery of electric shocks to a hapless victim under the guise of a learning experiment, is what it revealed about ourselves: that people are capable of inflicting extreme, potentially deadly punishment on innocent victims if compelled to do so by an authority figure. The implications of the findings for understanding apparently incomprehensible atrocities ranging from the Holocaust to Abu Ghraib have kept the research salient in our collective consciousness across five decades, and so it is no wonder that the impending conference has generated a great degree of interest.

Given the various ethical strictures that are now in place in most research institutions, it has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to conduct Milgram-type experiments in the contemporary context.  Yet researchers have become quite ingenious in terms of developing alternative methodologies to study obedience-related questions, such as the use of virtual testing using avatars as opposed to real-life apparent 'victims.'

I myself never met Milgram, although a couple of my Temple University grad school professors knew him well and admired him greatly.  According to one, Milgram was torn over the ethical criticisms of his work and believed that people just wouldn't let the issues rest and concentrate on his subsequent work.  Think what you will of his obedience experiments, Milgram was a ground-breaking pioneer in the field of social psychology, greatly respected by his students and peers.  I won't be able to attend the conference, but Nestar Russell informed me that there is a chance they will publish something afterwards and perhaps even stream some key talks from the conference.  I'll keep you posted if developments warrant.

 Additional Reading:

Kimmel, A. J.  Deception in psychological research: A necessary evil?  The Psychologist, August 2011.

Blass, T.  The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram.  Basic Books, 2007.

Also check out Prof. Blass's website:

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