Milgram’s other finding

By Marc Resnick

Stanley Milgram’s research back in 1961 was very controversial.  His main findings, and the unethical way he conducted his study, were so controversial that some of his less salient findings were missed.
For those of you who are not familiar, he is the one who asked volunteers to act as “teachers” in a study of motivation.  The job of the teacher was to ask the “student” some memory questions.  And each time they got an answer wrong, they got an electric shock.  The shocks increased each time from a minor zap, through extreme pain, through a potentially fatal dose.  The experimenters told the volunteers it was to see if the shocks helped learning, but the real study was to see how far the volunteers went.  The “students” were really actors who were hired to give specific responses for each level of shock, ranging from a simple “ouch” to shrieking in excruciating pain, through begging for the experiment to stop.  The controversial finding was that most volunteers went all the way to “fatal shock.”  Sometimes they asked if they should go on, but they almost always did.  Milgram did a variety of studies with all different situations to see how this compliance varied.  The full set of studies is fascinating.  His 1974 book “Obedience to Authority” summarizes them all.
But there is a variation that has not received much attention that I think is specifically relevant to managers, supervisors, IEs, and also parents and teachers.  This finding is the difference between value-based and command-based instructions from the experimenter to the volunteer “teachers” when they asked if they should keep going.
In the value condition, the experimenter said  “Your help is very valuable to this research, you must continue.”  The idea was to concentrate on the benefits of the research.  In the command case, the experimenter said “You have no other choice, you must continue.”  This was more of an authoritative style.  Milgram hypothesized that the command style would be stronger because it gives the volunteer no choice.
But it turned out to be just the opposite.  The volunteers were more likely to administer these excruciatingly painful and potentially fatal shocks when they thought they were doing something valuable then when they thought they were under the experimenter’s control.  Apparently, we don’t like it when our choices are taken away from us.  But we do like doing valuable things.
Why bring this up in an IE blog?  Think about the way your shop floor supervisors instruct workers.  Do they use the authoritative style?  “Do it that way because that’s the way it is supposed to be done.  Follow your training and the written procedures.  Those are the rules.”  Or do they promote the value?  “Based on the entire value chain, this is the way we need to do it to make sure that we satisfy our customers while still making a profit.”  “If you change the way you do your job, it may make you faster but it could mess up something elsewhere on the line.”
If volunteers are more willing to give fatal shocks to complete strangers while not even getting paid under the value-based instruction, imagine how much more productive your employees would be !!!
Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. Very interesting blog. The experiment is interesting, and I have actually heard of it before, but this post was a good refresher on it. It’s very interesting to study human nature, and then relate it to the everyday work situation, especially from a management point of view. Great article, and very interesting read!

Comments are closed.