Saturday, 20 Dec, 2008 Science

Research Shows that People Are Still Willing to Torture


American researchers imitated a notorious "torture" testing, in which participants obediently brought painful electrical shocks to other people in case they were persuaded to do so by authority bodies. The experiment showed disturbing results. About 70 percent of people involved in the study carried on with bringing electrical shocks, or at least they thought so, despite the claims of an actor about the pain the shocks caused, said Jerry Burger, a scientist from Santa Clara University, California.

"What we found is validation of the same argument - if you put people into certain situations, they will act in surprising, and maybe often even disturbing, ways. This research is still relevant," said the researcher.

He performed a replication of an experiment published for the first time back in 1961 by Stanley Milgram, a professor of Yale University. In his experiment Milgram asked study participants to bring electrical "shocks" to others in case they gave wrong answers to certain questions. He discovered that when an actor screamed of pain generated by 150 volts, over 82 percent of volunteers carried on with administering the shocks, the majority reaching 450 volts.

After the experiment, none of the psychologists attempted to repeat it due to the distress the majority of participants suffered, believing they were really administering electrical shocks to other people.

"When you hear the man scream and say, 'let me out, I can't stand it', that is the point when the real stress that people criticized Milgram for kicked in," Burger said.

Jerry Burger, slightly modified the test - he stopped the experiment for 29 men and 41 women who reached 150-volt point. The scientist then calculated the number of participants who started bringing another shock when prompted by the head of the test - but he did not allow to do so, instead he stopped them. According to the results of Milgram's experiment, study participants started experiencing psychological distress when administering 150 volts, nevertheless most of them didn't stop bringing electrical shocks.

In the new experiment, 70 percent of participants had the will of administering over 150-volt electrical shocks. The scientist decided at a certain point to bring a fake study participant, who was aware of the experiment. He refused to bring shocks over 150 volts. However, 63 percent of volunteers carried on with delivering electrical shocks beyond 150 volts. "That was surprising and disappointing," Burger said. He did not find any difference among the study participants, whose age was between 20 and 81. Burger accurately screened his volunteers to be average representatives of the American public.

According to the researcher, the experiment may only partially explicate the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, located in Iraq and managed by the U.S. or some events that occurred during World War II. Burger noted that one should be very cautious when comparing a lab experiment with real complex behaviors such as, for example, genocide. However, he added that it is also very important to comprehend the social psychological factors that may lead to people acting unpredictably.

He mentioned that there was nothing wrong with people involved in the research. "The idea has been that somehow there was this characteristic that people had back in the early 1960s that they were somehow more prone to obedience."

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