McDonald's Meets Milgram
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*
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.
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.
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.