Wednesday, September 10, 2008
The most interesting thing I ever saw on television might have been a study on the effects of pain on learning.

At a university, volunteers' short-term memories were tested as they were wired to a device capable of a small electrical shock.

A scientist conducting the experiment would ask questions to a subject in the adjoining room over an intercom system, and a student volunteer would push a button that sent a mild electrical shock to the subject if he or she gave an incorrect answer about something they had been listening to.

The difficulty of the questions would vary, and the amount of electrical voltage could go from very mild to strongly irritating (never high enough to physically harm the subject).

The student volunteers were paid a small amount to participate in the experiment as were the subjects whose memory was being tested.

You could hear the subjects react to the electrical charge they'd received, and some of the student volunteers were uneasy about their reaction, but the person conducting the experiment would assure the student volunteer that there was no harm being done.

Sometimes during the testing a subject would want to stop the experiment but the person doing the experiment would say it was important to finish and they had already been paid and volunteered to take part in the experiment.

Sometimes if the subject gave an incorrect answer the researcher would ask the student assisting to turn the dial higher for a stronger electrical signal.

It turned out that the experiment was not really about learning but about our reaction to those in authority.

As a man in a white labcoat taking notes on a clipboard would tell a student volunteer to deliver higher and higher electrical stimulus to an unseen subject, how long did it take from the time the student volunteer started expressing concern about what they were doing until the person decided not to do it again? The man in the lab coat (who was an actor and not a physician or psychologist) had been instructed to calmly keep asking questions and gradually instructing the student volunteer to set the dial to a higher number before pushing the button to send a charge to the subject. (The subject was not connected to any electical device but would react in apparent discomfort or pain according to how high the dial was set.)

The second most disturbing thing was that even when the unseen subject was in apparent pain and asking to stop the experiment, it took a while for student volunteers to escalate from looking uncomfortable to questioning the lab technician about whether they should continue to the point where one or two of the volunteers actually got up and angrily left telling the experimenter they didn't want to participate anymore and they could keep the payment that had been spoken about.

The most disturbing thing was a number of people who either shrugged it off when the unseen subject complained when the physician or professor assured them that they needed to finish the experiment or the number of people who were ready to go on with the experiment as long as the person in authority wanted to push it, even willing to turn the dial up to the area marked "danger" on the dial.

You can look up the Milgrom experiment though there isn't that much about it online.
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