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McDonald's Meets Milgram

The (Cyber) Bag of Weasels

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

McDonald's Meets Milgram

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I never thought that I'd consider McDonald's and Stanley Milgram in the same post but here goes.

I got an email from an associate of mine, Cheryl--whose novel I am sloooowly critiquing--on Saturday. At first, upon reading her email, I thought that it was one of those PANIC! hoaxes designed to see how many lemmings will forward the same email in one hour in an attempt to cause misplaced anxiety and rage. (Note that Cheryl is not the type to send this sort of crap around but since I once got forwarded a warning about the Olympic torch virus from my dad, who is a network administrator and should know better, I know that we all have the occasional lapse in good judgment.) So before I even read the link that accompanied the email, I headed off to trusty old snopes.com to see if it was possible to disprove the story told in her email. I came up with nothing, so I thought, "Why not?" and clicked the link.

Turns out that it was for real, as in the link takes you to The Courier Journal of Louisville, Kentucky (and I had further proof beyond that, which I will get to in a minute). The incident is absolutely astounding. If you have fifteen minutes, do read the article. It is long, but it is well written as far as newspaper articles go, and it goes fast.

But first, since I can hardly ramble about social psychology without indulging my own urge to do a little bit, even if just in LJ form, then here is a poll. Just two questions; it's a quickie. Answer honestly; I'm not looking individual replies because it's the trends that matter, not who answers what or who decides to play at all. And this will all make sense in a minute.

Also, please don't read the article or my commentary until after you take the poll. I obviously can't enforce this, but the results will be more accurate if you don't, so I'm trusting you all. *puts on a white coat and attempts to look threatening*


Poll #921517 Obedience to Authority

If you perceive someone as an authority (teacher, police officer, etc), how likely are you to do what they tell you to do? Assume no threat or coercion is used.

I will always obey.
1(3.0%)
I will likely obey.
16(48.5%)
I will likely not obey.
1(3.0%)
I will never obey.
0(0.0%)
It depends on the situation.
15(45.5%)

If someone who you view as an authority asks you to do something against your morals or ethics--such as degrade or harm an innocent person--would you do it? Again, assume no threat or coercion.

I will always obey.
0(0.0%)
I will likely obey.
0(0.0%)
I will likely not obey.
18(54.5%)
I will never obey.
15(45.5%)



As Cheryl did, I'm going to sum up the article, since it is quite long, for those who don't have the time to read it.

Recently, there was a spate of hoaxes involving chain restaurants, primarily fast-food establishments. In the course of this hoax, a man would call an individual store, claiming to be a police officer. He would then describe in detail one of the employees working on that shift and allege to the manager-on-duty that the individual had been caught stealing from the restaurant.

At this point, the officer would explain to the manager that s/he needed to search the suspect. The manager would be instructed to take the employee back to the office, where over the phone the officer would lead the manager through strip-searching the employee. Once the employee was naked, the manager would be instructed to make the employee do humiliating things during the process of "search." For example, naked women were made to do jumping jacks to see if "anything would fall out." At least one manager was convinced to insist that a male janitor insert his fingers into a female employee's vagina to "check for contraband." Managers were instructed to have other employees or family members watch and search the "suspect." Sometimes, employees were left in the office without their clothes for hours.

Now do you see why my first move upon reading this was to check snopes.com?

The full article is here. As I said earlier, if you have the time, I really recommend taking fifteen minutes or so to read it.

It does seem hard to believe, doesn't it? Based on a phone call alone from a man claiming to be a police officer, restaurant managers were talked into humiliating and sexually assaulting their employees, up to and including sodomy. And this was not an isolated incident. There are seventy reported cases of it. How can this happen?

Or an even better question: would you fall for it?

Back in my days at university, I faced the dilemma of many psychology students who see graduation and graduate school looming on the horizon: I needed experience. I needed an internship. As it was, I was taking the second half of Experimental Psychology that semester with a professor named Dr. Blass. It was my first class with Dr. Blass, so I didn't know him too well, but one day, he announced to the class that he needed a research assistant to help him in transcribing interviews for a book that he was writing. The kicker: it would be for internship credit.

So I volunteered and found myself with the job. It was easy enough: He gave me a stack of tapes and a transcription machine and let me work at my own pace from there. For those of you fortunate souls who have never used a transcription machine, it is essentially a tape player attached to a foot pedal that controls the speed and direction of the tape. So you can stop and rewind without having to stop transcribing. It does improve one's typing--I suspect that this is the real reason, not my incessant noveling, that I can "type at the speed of thought"--but it is very tedious. Still, undergraduate interns can't be picky, so every night for an hour or so, I would--as Bobby called it--sit down at my desk and "Blasst off" with my transcription machine.

And the subject matter was decidedly interesting. Dr. Blass--come to find out--is the world's foremost authority on social psychologist Stanley Milgram, and the book he was writing was Milgram's biography. To one unfamiliar with social psych, being "the foremost expert on Stanley Milgram" might seem like being crowned the world's foremost champion at sock-ball basketball, but trust me, Milgram is a big name. In pop culture, Milgram is probably best recognized as the source of the "six degrees of separation" concept.

But what most will undoubtedly call his most important work were his studies on obedience to authority. During the 1960's at Yale, Milgram put out an ad asking for volunteers to participate in a study on human learning. Participants would arrive at the lab to be greeted by a stern, white-coated researcher and another subject, an amiable, portly man. The two subjects would draw lots to see who would be the "learner" and who would be the "teacher."

In reality, both the researcher and the second subject were actors. The true participant was always cast as the teacher. At this point, the researcher paid the participant and then explained the study. The "learner" was given a set of word pairs to learn, and the "teacher"--the true participant--would quiz him. For each wrong answer, the teacher was expected to give the learner an electric shock. For each wrong answer, he was instructed to turn up the voltage.

Of course, the shocking apparatus was not real. The "learner" was trained to act as though he was being shocked, but the participant did not know this. The first shocks were small, barely able to be felt; the machine "allowed" shocks up to 450 volts, which is enough to kill a human being.

Mind you, participants were not forced or coerced to shock the other subject. They were paid and allowed to keep the money just for showing up, regardless of whether they participated in the study, so money, as they say, was no object. The researcher would answer their protests with, "Please continue," or, "The experiment requires you to continue"; nothing threatening or even particularly forceful.

How many people do you think administered the final, fatal voltage?

The "learner" during this time was pleading with the subject not to continue. He had a heart condition; he wasn't feeling well; he was screaming in agony. Eventually, he passed out. How many people continued to shock his unconscious body?

Meta-analysis by Dr. Blass shows that 61 to 66% of participants administered the final 450-volt shock.

These people were not criminals or miscreants; they were ordinary citizens with steady jobs and families; before the study, if asked if they would obey a man to the point of murdering another human, they would have thought it outside the realm of possibility.

But many of them did.

Milgram--and indeed Blass--have good reason to be interested in obedience to authority. Both are Jewish, and Milgram's work was spurred by the desire to answer the question of how ordinary citizens came to commit the atrocities seen during the Holocaust. Blass is a Holocaust survivor from Hungary.

The Holocaust is perhaps the most dramatic recent example of the power of authority, but real life is full of them. The incident with the fast-food managers is yet another. (And if you're wondering what really proved the veracity of this article to me, it was that Dr. Blass is quoted numerous times!) The caller was so effective in getting such unwitting obedience from his victims because he was very good at impersonating a police officer, at creating that aura of "authority." He talked like a cop, tossed around the proper jargon, and presented a convincing demeanor. And that was all that it took. People no longer felt responsible. They were "just doing what they were told." The article further points out that obedience to police authority is highly valued in the fast-food business, an industry that is largely dependent on employee obedience to begin with. As a one-time production trainer in a family chain restaurant, I can attest to the fact that skill in such jobs is not measured by one's talent or creativity in preparing food, as it might be at a fine restaurant, where dishes that expertly combine surprising ingredients with interesting presentations are valued. Everything from the number of ounces of mayonnaise on a sandwich to the height of whipped cream on a sundae was prescribed and controlled; even serving a table requires set steps done within very specific timeframes: greet at the door within five seconds of arrival, seated within 30 seconds of arrival, greeted by a server within 30 seconds of seating, drinks delivered within 2 minutes of greeting, et cetera. This is not an industry that trains employees to think but to carry out the orders of their superiors.

And the fast food industry is one where managers are largely promoted from within. This year's fry boy is next year's shift manager is next year's store manager. So the creativity expected of managers in some employment sectors is not present here, where the most unquestioning employee is often the next awarded a shiny badge.

As Bobby pointed out when we were discussing this incident, the Milgram obedience experiment would violate ethical standards if it was proposed today. But, I countered, why do we even need further experiments when we have real-life examples to back up what was replicated in the laboratory?

Studying obedience seems to be a depressing subject. So we're all likely to commit atrocities against our fellow humans simply because a guy in an impressive-looking coat or who sounds like a cop tells us to. The idea that our neighbors would likely harm or kill us if told to do so by a perceived authority is a sobering thought. But there is hope in all of this. Further studies suggest that knowledge of how people perceive and respond to "authority" makes them less likely to behave in a blindly obedient manner. So by understanding Milgram's work and its significance; understanding how atrocities like the recent fast food hoaxes can possibly happen means that when an authority is standing in front of us, asking us to do something immoral or unethical, we are more likely to possess the good sense to question that and stand up to it.

If you want to read a more detailed account of Milgram's work than I have provided, Wikipedia actually has a pretty good article on the Milgram experiment.
  • I took an Elementary Psych course last year, and the Milgram experiment was one of our case studies. I couldn't believe it, really, when the professor first explained the results, but we watched a video-recording of one man pressing the lever to shock the other man, even when he was begged to stop -- even, most horrifyingly, when the "learner" went silent and the "teacher" thought that he had passed out from the strain on his weak heart -- and there it was. I don't remember all the statistics, but the ones quoted are enough to make my head spin. Eeurgh. Isn't that frightening enough, in a controlled experimental setting when no one is actually being hurt? And then this. How horrible, really. *shivers*

    Thank you for the last paragraph, though, Dawn. I was utterly depressed about the state of human nature and things, and then I got to your last thoughts, and it made me slightly happier. :-)

    (Sidenote: So when's the last time I commented on one of your ever-fascinating posts? Far too long ago, I fear. But I really have been reading and following your adventures with scuba-diving and puppies and coworkers and so on. It always makes me happy to read a post from you, for some reason. You make my boring life interesting! ;-) )
    • Awww, thank you! *Dawn gives hugs and Alex gives kisses* :)

      Though I doubt your life is boring...the life of a student never truly is! I just have a knack for kicking up my own boring life with spicy words! :^D

      As for Milgram's work, you are not alone in feeling initial disbelief. Something like only 1% of psychologists, when asked prior to the experiment, felt that anyone would go all the way to 450 volts. It's a scary phenomenon, truly. And history is so full further proof of it: the Holocaust and Mai Lai being two fairly recent, horrible examples of that. And I wonder: When will atrocities like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay join the list??

      But it is encouraging, as you said, that people who know Milgram's work will question things like the fast-food hoax when they happen in their own lives. (And many people did resist the hoax, so that is encouraging as well, I think. :)
  • *shudders* Oy. Those hoaxes are positively horrific. I wish they had all heard about Milgram.

    I didn't vote in the poll, because I knew exactly what you were referencing from the title itself. My social psych professor just referenced Milgram in class last week, and guess what? They replicated his experiment recently, and...

    The results are the same: 2/3 of the people will obey authority to the last. :-/ That's why more people need to know about this.

    *grumbles* Why are my floormates shrieking like deranged monkeys...? Is it too much to ask for relative quiet? Apparently so...
    • Your icon is awesome!

      And you're taking social psych? Wait, I knew that! *doh* I really enjoyed that class. Dr. Blass was always asking, "Dawn, have you ever given any thought to going to grad school to study social psychology??" Poor guy...he finally found some poor sap willing to transcribe all those tapes, and she was only interested in clinical/biopsych stuff. ;)

      Was the study exactly the same as the Milgram experiment? I'm surprised that it passed the review board...though the Milgram study is largely decried for poor debriefings. IIrc, Milgram is the reason that we have review boards in the first place. ;)

      I think that it's part of human nature to obey, vague and unscientific as that sounds. ;) But if these are the results in a country that values independent thought, imagine what they would be in places that place higher value on obedience! Or when the "teacher" is under duress, in fear for his life or that of his family. It kind of puts things into a different perspective, methinks. :^/
      • Ugh. Just... ugh. *shudder*

        I voted "depends" on the first and "never" on the second, though I'm not sure just how it would work out in real life. Nothing ever works out like I think in real life, so I can't say.

        You mentioned culture. It may be that my culture, which emphasizes obedience, makes us more susceptible to being blind. Then again, it might make us less susceptible-- after obeying some rather unreasonable rules (once, when I was transferred to the, ah, "superior" class, I was not allowed to have silent study with my own classmates. I went back after that), one might actually be more sceptical of random orders from people in authority. There's no way to really know, unless something really comes up.

        I'm darkly fascinated by the Milgram experiment. I should probably do some reading on it... I sort of admire the man for revealing the darker side of obedience.
        • Interesting thoughts on culture...I hadn't ever thought of it that way. And it's a good point: We Westerners are generally asked to obey in only benign situations. For example, there is a power outage and a police officer asks us to cross the red light and keep traffic moving. Or a teacher asks us to take our seats and be quiet. These are really reasonable things, and so authority, perhaps, to us, becomes associated with benign, reasonable requests.

          Milgram, of course, turned that idea on its head. And the men who committed the Mai Lai massacre, for example, had been raised with the ideal that authority only requests of us things that are benign and "for our own good," so perhaps this is why they did not question the authority that asked them to murder innocents.
  • Bleh, I meant my answer as more of a "It depends on the situation, but I end up almost always obeying because I'm so passive and people of authority usually don't (directly) ask me things against my morals anyway" than a plain "I will always obey" that might imply I don't question what I'm doing. Oops.

    And that reminds me of the days when I was training to be a pharmacy technician, and reading about what other pharmacy techs had to say about their jobs. More than once, I heard that a pharmacy technician would have a customer question him/her in a rude way or not believe what s/he had to say about a product when s/he was wearing just regular business-casual clothes, but as soon as s/he put on a white lab coat, it was like everything the pharmacy technician said was suddenly more believable and important. (Someone who worked at a place where they don't wear lab coats even said that her pharmacy manager told her that if she wanted customers to believe her, "Just take five minutes and put on a white lab coat.")

    Well, at least having been in a white lab coat myself, I have a sort of advantage of realizing that the people who wear lab coats are still just silly humans. ;)
    • That's okay! I've got 30 responses, which is a bigger sample than I expected! So one boo-boo does not matter much. :)

      That's really interesting about the lab-coat phenomenon! Though not surprising, as appearances have so much to do with perception. (I'm also wondering, however, what kind of lab coat she was putting on to take five minutes to do so! :^D)

      Even in writing, lots of typos can make even the most intelligent person sound stupid...or the opposite, a high-school senior who never even read the play on her AP English exam writes a shiny-but-bullshit essay on it and gets a perfect score anyway.... *innocent whistling* It's amazing how much we assume, based on nothing but appearance alone.
  • I've read about the Milgram experiment years ago. It's really scary. On the other hand, I was glad to read about it, because it did shed some light on the question of how the Holocaust could happen. Of course it's only one aspect, but it explains at least partly how ordinary people end up doing horrible things they probably would call horrible themselves if asked about their opinion over a cup of tea.

    That phone call incident is horrible. :-/

    Thanks for sharing such an insightful post.

    {{{you}}}
    • {{{you too}}} :)

      If the Milgram experiment is true with no coercion and without threat, imagine what people must be capable of when the safety of themselves and their families is put on the line! o.O That's the most sobering thought of all, for me, because I know that obedience to military authority or dictators is rarely (ever?) without threat or coercion.

      And you're welcome! :)
  • Huh. Well, this inspired a blog entry at the Chimp Refuge (scienceblogs.com/bushwells). I didn't link your piece directly since I didn't think you'd necessarily want all the scientific riff-raff over there descending on your quiet little corner of the Bag of Weasels blogoverse, but if you do, please let me know, and it's just a matter of an . :^)



    • You are welcome to link me whenever you'd like! :) I don't expect it, of course, but if it would be helpful, then go right ahead!

      (And I do appreciate you asking. People rarely do, so it's refreshing, like actually getting a "Thank you" for holding the door for someone!)

      As far as riffraff goes...well, I post at fanfiction.net. Short of slashing my wrists, sticking my head into a pot of boiling water, or joining the Harry Potter fandom, I don't think there's any greater form of self-injurious behavior!
      • And...it's linked.

        Well, I always say "thank you" when someone opens a door for me, but I don't always ask permission to link, but with nice folks with whom I correspond, I do. :^)

        It's interesting to see who links into one's blog. Via a Technorati search, I stumbled across a neat blog kept by a woman who is a writer and an avid sci-fi fan, and this was because she linked into something I wrote. One of the hapless guys on Science Blogs made a very unfortunate comment regarding the paucity of "hot women" who read science fiction. You can imagine that his a$$ was well and thoroughly handed to him. Anyway, Lisa summarised this responses from us indignant scifi-fantasy fans in "Hottus Chicas Scientificas Unite."

        http://lisapaitzspindler.com/blog/?p=56

        Her blog looks pretty cool, IMO, and may be of interest to some of your readers.

        So, I briefly ventured into the Pit of Voles (another new bit of terminology for me). Oh. My. That place is like a writhing Hieronymus Bosch painting! I fled screaming.

        Finally, great news on the biopsy results. I am sure you must relieved. It's an honest worry.

        Btw, I broke down and ordered The Complete History of Middle Earth. Dammit.
    • Well, I always say "thank you" when someone opens a door for me, but I don't always ask permission to link, but with nice folks with whom I correspond, I do. :^)

      Yes, linking is somewhat of a delicate issue. Personally, I don't mind friends linking me simply because 95% of my stuff is public anyway, so someone with enough determination could find me if they wanted to. It's simply refreshing to be asked! :)

      Anyway, Lisa summarised this responses from us indignant scifi-fantasy fans in "Hottus Chicas Scientificas Unite."

      That was interesting...I shall have to go back and read some of the articles that she linked!

      I had noticed on Critters workshop (F/H/SF genre) that there is a shortage of female authors. I actually intend to go and do some stats on the recent submissions--being a geek and wishing to play with some numbers that don't have to do with warrants--but I find it surprising when considering that the overwhelming proportion of authors who write Tolkien (which is a type of fantasy) are female. So women are clearly interested in fantasy and interested in writing...why aren't more of them writing original stuff?

      A few years ago, my husband and some of my male friends were really into tabletop battle games; being as I was often dragged along, I decided to take up miniatures painting and became quite good at it. But it was funny, when I would go into the stores with them, they would be approached by the salespeople, and I would be ignored. Which was fine by me, as Games Workshop salespeople are terribly annoying and pushy, and it let me look at my paints in peace. :^P

      Also, when I would win painting competitions, it would make my male opponents so angry that a young, attractive woman who really didn't give a shit about the games would kick their asses with next to no effort; I have been drawing and painting for most of my life, so miniatures painting was a natural extension of that. But there was almost this disbelief: "How can she do that? She not only bathes more than once per month but she's a girl!!!" Bobby and I used to have many good laughs over that.

      So, I briefly ventured into the Pit of Voles (another new bit of terminology for me).

      Lol! Sorry, I keep forgetting you're so new at this....

      Yes, the Pit is aptly named...it's probably the only Tolkien archive where you can get into an all-out brawl with other people. Not that I know from experience or anything.... *innocent whistling*

      The Silm section isn't too bad. I hear that LotR is pretty full of crap. I dare not venture into, say, Harry Potter...but that's not just the Pit of Voles where that rule applies. ;)
      • Oh, man, your account of the archetypal Comic Book Guy reactions to your skills in painting miniatures...well, I'm cracking up.

        I can think of a number of women who are published authors in the sci fi/fantasy genre, e.g., LeGuin, McCaffrey, Julian May, Bradley, etc., and yeah, in my admittedly brief exploration of the JRRT fanfic universe, there does seem to be a preponderance of women writers. So, it is kinda surprising that there are fewer women in the Critters Workshop writing original work. Critters Workshop, eh? I'm guessing the latter has something to do with...critiquing, yes?

        That was interesting...I shall have to go back and read some of the articles that she linked!

        Here, please allow me to link to the best, yes, the most scintillatingly eloquent of the articles! :^D

        http://scienceblogs.com/bushwells/2006/12/hot_or_not.php

        The guy on the far left is one of my closest friends. He was my host when I was in Cambridge and you wrote in response to my review of AMC.

        In searching for "Hot or Not," I came across this old entry, which I think may be the only other reference to Tolkien as a searchable word, although I think one of my co-bloggers might have used "afrodoist" once in one of his rationalist's rants.

        http://scienceblogs.com/bushwells/2006/11/friday_flower_porn_tolkien_ico.php
    • Women and Science Fiction

      Thanks for the kudos on the blog. Please stop back. I'm always taking nominations for Danger Gal Fridays.

      That hapless Science Blog guy who started the whole mess just recently took one of those online tests, this one being "What science fiction writer are you?" He got Arthur C. Clarke.

      I think it would have been really funny if he'd gotten James Tiptree.
  • I just googled a video of a replay of the experiment. It was... interesting, but I found my own reaction to it more interesting.

    About halfway through, I started feeling cold and started to sweat at the same time. I found that I had unconsciously clenched my fists. Trying to relax did not work. About some time after that, I heard my teeth chattering. Then my heart started pounding madly. By the end of watching the experiment, I was absolutely tense, and I had finger-nail prints in the palms of my hands. I'm still shaking, for some reason. And it wasn't even me in the experiment; merely watching it did that to me.

    I wonder what it would have been like for the actual subjects.
    • There has been research done on people's reactions to Milgram's work, and you're not alone. I remember watching that video in experimental psych with Dr. Blass, and many people in the class laughed at the video. Afterward, we discussed our reaction, and Blass pointed out how it was common for people to laugh while watching the video. Why? Are they completely heartless?? No, it was just a way that they expressed their obvious anxiety at even watching an actor portray human suffering. Many of the participants in the study laughed as well.

      Fewer people would probably admit your reactions, though I'm sure that many experienced them as well. It's not an easy video to watch.

      As for what it was like for the participants...well, Milgram's work is the reason why all research involving human subjects in the US must now pass the Institutional Review Board, or IRB. :) We had to get IRB approval for surveys done in university; Milgram's work started that because people questioned the ethics of the study. The participants were severely upset by not only what they had been asked to do but by what they had actually done. Also, there were some issues presented where Milgram did not properly debrief the participants, and they did not understand what the study was really about.

      Now if you talked to Dr. Blass, he would tell you that most of the participants were grateful to participate in the study, despite the fact that it had been stressful. They learned a lot about themselves, they said, and one man even credited having participated in Milgram's study as the reason why he went on to be a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Of course, Dr. Blass is a little biased...I think it's safe to say that the experience was really stressful for participants, though some--many even--also learned a lot from it and became "better people" for their participation in it.
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