Critiquing social psychology

A few years back I listened to a UC Berkeley class on social psychology, and heard about scores of experiments that had tried to tease out basic principles of human behavior by bringing people into a laboratory setting and presenting them with various tasks and dilemmas.

I remember thinking at the time that many of these experiments seemed contrived and artificial, and I wondered if they really proved the principles that the researchers claimed that they did.

Now, listening to lecture 2 of UC Berkeley’s John Kihlstrom’s new class on Social Cognition (audio feed, video feed), I see what many of these experiments were lacking, namely attention to what the experimental subjects were thinking, and how they made sense of the experiments.

For example, take Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous 1963 experiment which purports to show that people are so programmed to obey authority figures, they are willing to give near lethal shocks to another person solely on the say-so of a person in a white coat with the title “experimenter.”

Here’s the experimental setup: the participants were told that the experiment was about the effects of punishment on learning. Then the participants were ostensibly randomly assigned either the role of “teacher” or “learner.” In fact, the learners were all confederates of the experimenters, and the experiment was completely about the actions of the “teachers.”

Each “teacher” was put in a cubicle together with a figure in a white coat who supervised the experiment. In another cubicle, some distance away, was the learner who was supposedly attempting to learn a series of vocabulary words. Each time the learner made a mistake, it was the job of the “teacher” to administer an electrical shock. After each mistake, the shock was supposed to be stronger (although no shocks were actually administered). At a certain point in the experiment, the “learner, began to complain about chest pain and exhibit greater and greater amounts of distress. Meanwhile, the figure in the white coat would tell the “teacher” that “the experiment requires that you continue.” And the overwhelming majority of the “teachers” were willing to follow instructions and administer higher and higher levels of electrical shock, even when they were told that the shocks could be fatal.

And here’s the critique, originally made in 1968 by psychologist Martin Orne: Is it in fact true that the “teachers” were so callous and so intimidated by authority that they were willing to risk killing the “student,” or did they smell a rat? If the experiment was really about the effects of punishment on learning, shouldn’t the experimenter have been in the same room as the “learner?” And perhaps it struck some as odd that a “teacher” was even needed for this learning experiment. The experimenter in the white coat could easily have performed that role.

So, Kihlstrom notes, the “teacher” is likely thinking, “Gee — maybe I am the subject of the experiment. What does the experimenter want me to do?” And thus, all of Milgram’s conclusions about obedience to authority are put in serious doubt.

It is a pretty devastating critique, and now I have to wonder, why is the Milgram experiment still being taught in university social psychology courses as they classic experiment that elucidates a basic principle of human behavior?

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2 Responses to Critiquing social psychology

  1. I do not recall, of the top of my head, what amount of intention analysis was done by Milgram; however, the results are not at all far-fetched. There are large amounts of real-life evidence, including e.g. Nazi-Germany. In fact, I suspect that most people who have gained a deeper understanding of the human mind, would find the general direction of the experiment the expected (although they may have underestimated the distance travelled in that direction).

    (But, yes, experimental investigations of psychology are much harder to make and to interpret than e.g. physical experiments.)

    • Dan says:

      Milgram was maybe the most replicated experiment in the history of social psychology. Obedience is consistent across replications. Some replications went as far as shocking live beings , if I recall there was a puppy. Yeah, humans actually shocked to death a cute fluffy animal who did no wrong.

      I would further argue that what is important is not why does the subject is obedient, but what is important is the final result, the fact that he obeys.
      As Newton said, “I make no hypothesis” is the right approach many times in science. I the case of obedience in the context of social psychology, it is enough to know that a significant percentage does obey.

      Besides, after psychology experiments the subjects are most of the time debriefed. IIRC subject in Milgram showed significant psychological distress when informed about the experiment. If they where never fooled, the possibility that such psychological distress was exhibited by subjects would be not statistically important.

      I dont think Orne’s critique is devasting. The critique has more holes itself than a Schweitzer.

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