Milgram Study Comes to Life (Again)

Stanley MilgramAs almost everyone knows, back in the early 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a study in which subjects were persuaded to deliver what appeared to be increasingly severe electric shocks to a confederate (who they thought to be simply another subject), often up to the point apparently killing the other person. There have long been questions about whether the study could be replicated, until it was done in an episode of ABC Primetime earlier this year.

Another widespread criticism has been that the high susceptibility that Milgram found of people to follow authority figures would not generalize well outside of the laboratory. The Boston Globe is now reporting a story that might put this question to rest as well. This past August a Massachusetts institution that specializes in the treatment of people with autism, mental retardation, and emotional problems, the Judge Rotenberg center, was tricked into delivering dozens of electric shocks to two of its special education students when staff were ordered to do so over the telephone by a former student posing as a school supervisor.

School staffers contacted state authorities after they realized they had been tricked on Aug. 26 into delivering 77 shocks to one student and 29 shocks to another, according to Cindy Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Department of Early Education and Care, which drafted the report. Both students were part of a Rotenberg-run group home in Stoughton for males under age 22.

According to the Globe story, “the Judge Rotenberg center, which serves about 250 adults and children from across the country, has been under fire for more than two decades for its unorthodox behavior-modification treatments, including electric shock treatments.”

The shock devices, which are strapped to some students’ arms, legs, or torsos, deliver two-second electric jolts to the skin. The devices are controlled remotely by teachers…. Based on the prankster’s call, one of the students was also wrongfully placed in four-point restraints, limiting mobility of all four limbs.

This is just the latest in a string of apparent public confirmations of the Migram study. In 2004 the assistant manage of a Mt. Washington, Ky., McDonald’s was persuaded to strip-search a teenage employee by a telephone caller posing as a police officer. The manager’s fiancĂ© was then convinced to sexually abuse the employee as well (see the related New York Times story).

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

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