Monday, August 1, 2011

Studies on Human Behavior Part 1:

I wanted to start a series on several studies that have looked at human behavior. The studies I want to look at are the ones done earlier on in psychology and probably would not get approval in today's world, but I think they are valuable in helping us as writers to better understand how humans behave in extreme circumstances. 

The first study that I want to look at is one by Stanley Milgram in 1961. The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was an experiment in which Milgram wanted to better understand the willingness of participants to obey authority. Milgram wanted to better understand why people will do horrible things such as the things done in concentration camps by people who normally would not do those type of things. He asked the question "Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?" In other words, "Was there a mutual sense of morality among those involved?” The results from the testing suggested that the millions of accomplices were just following orders.

The study was setup so that the participant was taken into a room with another person and they were told that they would be helping another person learn by shocking them when they made a mistake. The participant could see the learner through a one way mirror and they were told that the student on the other side of the mirror could not see them. The student was an actor in actuality and he was not shocked during the experiment although he acted as if he was. So the instructor told the participant that if the student missed the question he must shock them and the amount of shock would be turned up for each missed question. As the actor was shocked he began to complain of heart problems and would even bang on the wall. Most participants said they wanted to check on the actor after this but the person in the room with the participant assured the participant that they would not be held liable and that they must continue the test. If four verbal prods were given and the participant wanted to stop the experiment would stop otherwise they would continue until the full 450 volts had been administered.

The results showed that 65 percent of the participants administered the full voltage. That is 26 out of 40 would have killed a person when instructed to do so by an authority figure. They all questioned it but they still continued on. Milgram said, “Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Okay besides being really scary this tells us a lot about human nature and authority. So the million dollar question is why does your character buck the system and go against authority? What is special about your character? 


  1. i wonder if plausible deniability plays a factor...knowing they can blame the one that ordered them...

  2. I have always found that study incredibly intriguing (and scary too!)

  3. This can be frightening, I know that you do these studies for writers characters but studies like these are done in real life.

    Enjoy your day.

  4. I think anyone who writes about military situations needs to at least take a look at this study. Even in my own life I have noticed how people, myself included, will sway one way or another to follow an authoritative figure just in my day to day job. These situations aren't nearly as detrimental as the study but it does make the person act differently than usual. Since I am currently writing a book with military figures I really look forward to playing around with this idea. Thanks, Josh.

  5. There's probably many reasons participants used full voltage, perhaps as it was an experiment, they thought voltage may not actually hurt the 'actor'. This reminds me of the pigeon buzzing exercise we did in pysch 101.

    In terms of my MC, not sure she bucks the system, more that she overcomes obstacles for self-fulfilment.

  6. I have always thought this study was very interesting and really makes me think about people and their character and how easy it can be for people to be the way they are because of who is over them. I think this study also shows that we shouldn't judge other people, especially not too harshly because we dont know what we would have done in those same sort of settings (like the holuacuast people). It is all very interesting!

  7. I agree with Bossy Betty, interesting, but scary. Knowing my personality, I would be the type to listen to authority and then feel guilty forever after...


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