Have you thought about killing somebody?

The answer is probably yes.  Fabulous episode of Radiolab recently about the evil and human nature.  Apparently, there’s been studies that have found that 91% of men and 84% of women have actually thought about killing another person.  Really?!  I’m pretty sure that I never really have thought about killing someone.  Am I really that rare.  I suppose I have thought about how one would get away with a murder– I do like to plan out crimes sometimes as an intellectual exercise– but I don’t think that should count.

Anyway, the show quickly moved onto the infamous Milgram obedience to authority experiments.  If you are not familiar with these, you absolutely must listen to this episode of Radiolab.  I mean it.  Otherwise you are dead to this blog (that is, unless you keep reading).   Anyway, what I especially appreciated is that the story actually spent a lot of time discussing the various permutations of the experiment.  What most people with only a glancing familiarity do not appreciate is that Milgram tried to think of just about every factor he could that might affect obedience in ran the experiment in dozens of different ways.  This is all covered in his terrifically readable book on the topic.  It’s really almost a master class in experimental research design.

There seems to be a paucity of youtube videos that have good footage of the original experiments, but this one was pretty good:


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Have you thought about killing somebody?

  1. itchy says:

    I always thought people arrived at conclusions that were far too confident, specific and complete for such a blunt study as Milgram’s. I never thought the Nazi analogy was strong. I didn’t realize Milgram did the variations, and those bear out my skepticism of the first study.

    My assumption was that the subjects had to weigh competing influences: On the one hand, the patient in the other room seems to be suffering, but on the other, the experimenter does not seem alarmed. I always assumed most participants in the 65% did not trust their own instincts and assumed they weren’t fully qualified to decide whether or not they truly were harming the patient.

    The variations seem to corroborate this: As the subjects are presented with more evidence that the patient really seems to be harmed — and as the authority figure’s judgment is called into question — the 65% drops again and again, down to zero.

    Of course, it’s not that simple. I think that’s the main factor, but there are others. There’s definitely an unwillingness to speak up as a lone voice in the face of authority, and there’s a tendency to care less for the welfare of someone who is not proximate, etc. There’s also an urgency to continue — the experiment does not allow for a lot of rational reflection.

    We tend to overlook that participants enter into an experiment with a priori expectations: That the experiment is ethical and vetted; that the authority figure is better qualified than we are at understanding what’s happening; that the results will be helpful to society; that a lot of work went into setting up the experiment and to halt it based in an impulse would waste time and effort.

    And, overwhelmingly likely, all these things are true. In fact, just so people don’t forget, it was true in this case, too.

    That said, I agree, it’s valuable to have the variations to tease out the effects. So good job by Milgram. Poor job by those who oversimplify his work.

  2. Steve Greene says:

    I think you are exactly right. I’ve always been a big fan of Milgram because my initial exposure was actually his book– not just an oversimplification by others. The whole research paradigm is really quite nuanced and I think you draw the right conclusions from his research. That’s what I loved about this Radiolab episode as it really presented most of, if not the complete, picture.

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