Social Psychology

A picture taken from one of Stanley Milgram’s set of experiments on obedience.

This month I’ve been taking the class of Social Psychology. In line with all the classes I’ve taken this year I am thoroughly enjoying it. One of the great things about the concentration years at Quest is being able to take so many classes that align with your interests. For me, this academic niche seems to be psychology so I came into the class with high expectations.

These expectations have been met and more as we learn crazy things every day about why people do what they do in a given context. Some of this information can be disheartening like learning just how quickly and easily we stereotype people, even subconsciously. Knowing how and why we do these things is also empowering though as it can be one of the best ways to override a cognitive mechanism or bias.

The above picture is taken from a famous experiment on obedience done by Stanley Milgram. In this study the researcher instructed participants to keep raising the shock level and shocking a “learner” (actually another researcher) when he got the question wrong. There actually was no shocks though, the setup was just meant to test how high participants would go on the shock scale (0-450 volt). You may think people would stop as soon as they heard screams from the learner, or even when they heard him begging to stop the experiment. However, this is not what happened, 65% of people that participated went all the way to 450 volts, a fatal shock level.

This experiment is seen as a classic in the field of social psychology because of how shocking the results were. Milgram had proven that normal people could do horrible things when they were put into an extreme environment under an obedient figure. This idea that context and social situation drives behaviour is central to social psychology, and has been demonstrated in numerous studies since Milgram’s (google “The Bystander Effect” for another good example).

Simply by knowing how pervasive the pressure to obey is though can be the best way to disobey. By understanding in the moment why I would feel inclined to obey an authoritative figure I may be able to use this conscious knowledge to overpower my implicit desire to obey.

A more detailed description of Milgram’s experiment can be found here:

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