Monday, May 07, 2007


I was discussing the Milgram experiments with a friend and a common question came up. Would people still show the same obedience now that deference to authority figures such as doctors is in decline? Would people still act to kill another person just because the man running the experiment told them to?

To find out I did the natural thing in an Internet age. I checked Wikipedia. I found out, of course, that not so much has changed. The mechanism for the Milgram experiment isn't deference to a particular authority. "The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow."

In the process I found my evidence that things have not changed. I hadn't heard about this case and it's almost completely unbelievable:

"The final prank call in this scheme was made to a McDonald's restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky on April 9, 2004. According to assistant manager Donna Summers, the caller identified himself as a policeman, 'Officer Scott', he described an employee whom he said was suspected of stealing a customer's purse. Summers called 18-year-old employee Louise Ogborn to her office and told her of the suspicion. Following the instructions of the caller, Summers ordered Ogborn first to empty her pockets, and finally to remove all her clothing except for an apron, in an effort to find the stolen items. Again following the caller's instructions, Summers had another employee watch Ogborn when she had to leave the office to check the restaurant. The first employee she asked to do so refused, so she phoned her fiance Walter Nix, asking him to come in to 'help' with the situation.

According to Ogborn, after Summers passed off the phone to Nix, he continued to do as the caller told, even as the caller's requests became progressively more bizarre. A security camera recorded Nix forcing Ogborn to remove her apron, the only article of clothing she was still wearing, and to assume revealing positions. As time went on, Nix, per his instructions, began to slap her and had her perform oral sex on him. The tape showed that Summers re-entered the office several times and dismissed her pleas for help, a statement which Summers denies.

When another employee was asked to take part and objected, Summers decided to call the store manager, whom the caller claimed to have on another phone line. She then discovered that the store manager had not spoken to any police officers, and that the call had been a hoax. A quick-thinking employee dialed *69 to determine that the caller had called from a supermarket pay phone in Panama City, Florida. Summers then called police, who arrested Nix and began an investigation to find the caller."

Milgram's experiment remains one of modern science's most interesting discoveries. It is an example of why, despite its weaknesses in some areas, psychology will always be fascinating.

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