Monday, April 30, 2012

One of the most famous social science experiments is Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority studies at Yale. Subjects were asked to administer ascending quantities of electrical shock to people each time they answered a question incorrectly. Those receiving the shock were hired actors, not really being shocked, but the subjects didn't know that. The intensity of shock began at 15 volts and rose in 15-volt increments up to 300 volts. The subjects heard screams, pleas to stop, complaints of heart pains and then silence – yet many of them continued to the end. How many? Two-thirds of participants administered the full range of shock, simply because the person in authority – a man with a white coat – would say, "The experiment requires that you continue." This is very scary, of course, but there's more to the story: In a little known but vitally important detail in these experiments, those who witnessed another person refuse to comply with the authority were dramatically more likely to refuse to comply themselves. In this case only 10% obeyed the orders of the authority. The power of a positive example represents a huge potential for good.

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