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Posted in: Psychology AS Research Methods Social Influence

oup_34693Stanley Milgram’s studies of destructive obedience – the tendency to follow orders resulting in harm to another person – have earned a place in psychology’s Hall of Fame, appearing on all recent psychology A-level specifications and in most, if not all, general undergraduate textbooks. And why not? Milgram’s studies were brilliantly designed, meticulously carried out and produced findings that run counter to common sense and tell us something immensely useful about human nature. Or so we have assumed until now…..

Milgram kept elaborate records of his studies including audio recordings of each participant, transcripts of interviews and follow-up questionnaires. Gina Perry (2012) has investigated this archived material and reached some alarming conclusions about Milgram’s ethics, methods and conclusions.

Ethical issues

Milgram’s peers were quick to identify ethical issues with his procedure. Participants were deceived and distressed, and they were given prompts to continue the procedure that verged on removing their right to withdraw. Milgram successfully defended himself at the time by pointing out that distress was minor and short-lived and that participants were de-hoaxed before leaving the building. His published descriptions of the verbal prompts suggested that only four prompts were given before the participant could withdraw from the procedure.

Perry’s analysis of the archives reveals none of these statements are correct. Many participants left without a debrief and some did not find out about the hoax for several months. It appears that some people were considerably distressed during this time. The experimenter was permitted to use his discretion in the use of verbal prompts and some participants were told 25 times to continue administering shocks in spite of their considerable distress.

Validity of the procedure

The validity of Milgram’s procedure depends on participants believing the shocks were real and on obedience to orders from an authority figure being the major factor underlying their behaviour. Perry has questioned both these assumptions. Looking at participants’ follow-up questionnaires she found that many included comments pointing out that several features of the procedure provided clues suggesting the shocks were not real – for example, learners’ cries were heard though a speaker rather than ‘live.’ It may be that a significant minority of participants continued to give shocks because they didn’t believe they were genuine.

It is also possible that, even where participants were convinced by the hoax, the tendency to obey authority figures was not the main factor underlying participants’ obedience. Perry points out that, when listened to, the experimenter’s actual orders and prompts to continue come across as bullying and coercion, not as authoritative instructions. Also, in the face of the ambiguity of the situation, participants may have placed additional trust in the experimenter. If the procedure actually measured responses to coercion and reliance on third party expertise in the face of uncertainty when they were meant to measure obedience to authority, then the validity is very poor.

Milgram’s conclusions

Milgram concluded that people had a strong tendency to obey figures in positions of legitimate authority, even when doing so violated their moral code and caused them distress. This conclusion is supportable given that 65% of participants in his original study of 40 people obeyed, giving the maximum 450V. However, Perry points out that across Milgram’s 24 studies, most people – 60% – disagreed. So, questions of ethics and experimental validity aside, Perry believes that Milgram’s conclusion is not a sensible one based on his results.

The case for the defence

So should we throw Milgram out with the bathwater? Not necessarily. Although by modern standards Milgram does seem to have compromised on ethics, we should bear in mind that he painstakingly archived all records of the procedure and left them available for scrutiny. If he was trying to deceive us, he did so pretty ineffectively! Also, remember that Milgram was writing before the existence of the kinds of ethical guidelines and review procedures we take for granted now.

As regards the validity of Milgram’s procedure, many subsequent studies using a range of designs have supported the idea that people are surprisingly obedient to destructive orders. This suggests that there is merit to his conclusions even if there were limitations to his procedure. Even if it is a significant minority rather than a majority that obey destructive orders, that is still worrying and well worth knowing about! No doubt the debate will continue – in fact you can join in here: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2013/10/02/the-shocking-truth-of-the-notorious-milgram-obedience-experiments/#.VWRQfLy350w.


Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority: an Experimental View. London: Tavistock Publications.

Perry, G. (2012) Behind the Shock Machine: the Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments. Brunswick, Victoria: Scribe Publications.

Posted in: Psychology AS

Thanks to Julie Allen of Wadebridge School for spotting this unintentional change to Bandura’s theory in our new textbook. On p128-129 of the new Year 1 book we have used the term ‘meditational processes’ which should, of course, be ‘mediational processes’. This will be corrected in the next re-print, although given that elsewhere in the book we have written about the power of meditation to boost the efficiency of brain processing, maybe he should consider changing it!




Posted in: News Research Methods Textbook updates

An observant reader noticed an error on page 198 of the new AS/Year 1 AQA book. In the key terms box the definitions for covert and obvert observation are the wrong way round, though the text is correct.

Overt observation is open – people know they are being observed.

Covert observation is closed – people have not been made aware that their behaviour is being observed.

Posted in: Attachment Psychology AS

Childbirth SelfieA recent study by researchers from University College and Kings Cross College in London and the University of Hertfordshire made headlines at the start of January 2015 with its conclusions that some women would find childbirth easier if their partner was not with them during labour.

The study was actually about attachment, because the researchers were interested in whether women with different attachment ‘styles’ or types had different experiences of pain depending on the presence or absence of their partners. The study worked like this:

1) Respondents, all female, completed a questionnaire to measure the extent to which she avoided emotional intimacy in relationships.

2) The respondents were then subjected to moderate pain, caused by a laser beam on one finger. The size of the brain’s electrical response to the pain were measured as well as a verbal report from the respondent as to the level of pain experienced.

3) The test was carried out both with the respondents’ romantic partner present, and without.

Those women whose questionnaire results indicated that they avoided emotional intimacy in relationships experienced more pain when their partner was with them than they did without their partner. This was true both of the electrical measure of brain response to pain and the subjective reports of level of pain. Women who were more emotionally intimate in relationships did not exhibit the same variation in response.

Despite the extrapolation of the study’s results to childbirth in the media, one of the researchers did point out that the pain a mother feels during childbirth may be different from the pain studied in the study.

Posted in: Psychology AS Research Methods

It’s the run-up to Christmas, so what could be more festive than a Research Methods quiz?!

Many thanks to our friends at AllPsych for putting this quiz together.

And a very happy Christmas to psychology students everywhere.

Xmas images




Posted in: Miscellaneous

The Wellcome Collection has launched a six part digital narrative called Mindcraft about theories of the mind of the late eighteenth to late nineteenth centuries: just late enough to cover Freud. Worth a look for an interesting way of telling a digital story.

Click here to explore Mindcraft for yourself.

Posted in: Memory

Psychologists have known for many years that memories are primarily stored in the cerebral cortex of the brain, and that a ‘control centre’ buried deep in the brain, is involved in both creating memories and retrieving them from their store in the cerebral cortex: made up of the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex.

In November 2014 a team led by researchers from Germany’s Magdeburg University and the German Centre for Neurogenerative Disease used a highly sensitive form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), called ‘7 Tesla ultra-high-field MRI’, to pinpoint the precise regions involved in processing memories. By studying the brain’s activity in very precise detail, the researchers could see that memories were created in particular neuronal layers within the hippocampus, and the information then travelled from the hippocampus out to the cerebral cortex.

The research team believe their results have identified the location of the ‘gateway’ or ‘doorway’ to memories. Next they want to see if it is damage to this gateway region that is the cause of memory loss in dementia, or whether memories remain intact at this point for dementia sufferers, with problems then occurring at later stages in memory processing and storage.

Posted in: Approaches to psychology News

The BPS has recently launched an interactive timeline called Origins which presents key developments in the evolution of psychological sciences from 1842 until the opening of the Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain in 1998. AQA favourite Wilhelm Wundt makes an appearance, naturally, coming in at 1875. The timeline features some excellent photos and should be a very useful tool for students to use in exploring the chronology of different approaches in psychology and identifying some of its key moments.

Posted in: Approaches to psychology Psychology AS Psychopathology



According to a recent article on the Guardian’s ‘Notes and Theories’ section, approximately 10 million people in the UK are believed to have some form of phobia: that’s out of a total UK population of 64 million. (I would tell you what percentage that was but I have a fear of calculating statistics.)

The vast majority of those phobias are not causing these people to visit their GPs or report them in any other way (so the 10 million figure is an estimate and we don’t know from the Guardian what this estimate is based on), but for some people their phobias cause them to make significant changes in the way they live their lives. The NHS lists the top ten phobias in the UK (from a survey by Anxiety UK) as:

  • social phobia – fear of interacting with other people
  • agoraphobia – fear of open public spaces
  • emetophobia – fear of vomiting
  • erythrophobia – fear of blushing
  • driving phobia – fear of driving
  • hypochondria – fear of illness
  • aerophobia – fear of flying
  • arachnophobia – fear of spiders
  • zoophobia – fear of animals
  • claustrophobia – fear of confined spaces.

The new AQA A Level specification puts phobias together with the behavioural approach to psychology, in which we learn about (amongst other things) the two-process model as an explanation for why phobias develop, and systematic desensitisation (SD) as a technique for treating phobias. This Guardian article is mostly about using virtual reality SD techniques as a way of treating phobias that are difficult to recreate in other ways – for example the phobias for public speaking or flying. What is good about phobias, in virtual reality terms, is that the simulation doesn’t need to be entirely realistic because the parts of the brain that produce the initial anxiety – the insula and amygdala – pick up on any trigger relating to the feared situation: a waggly, spidery leg is enough for someone with arachnophobia.

As we know, many people can relate their phobias directly to personal experience – they were once sick on a train, for example, and now they are worried about being sick every time they go on a train. Others pick up fears from the media even if they have not had a bad experience themselves – this is common for those with aerophobia. But for around one third of sufferers, the cause of their phobia is not known. It might be that they have simply forgotten it – perhaps it happened when they were very young. However, this Guardian article offers another possible explanation which might be useful for those evaluating the behavioural approach to phobias:

‘While there is currently no evidence that this occurs in humans, research involving animal models  suggests the effect of traumatic experiences can be passed from the brain to the genome and inherited by future generations. Scientists found that the offspring of mice conditioned to experience fear when exposed to a particular odour became fearful when they were exposed to the same smell.’


fMRI in action

Posted in: Biopsychology Psychology A2

The new AQA spec (soon to be approved, we hear) includes, at A Level, ‘ways of studying the brain: scanning techniques, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)’. This YouTube video gives a functional, magnetic and resonant view of what fMRI involves and what its results look like in practice.

The AQA spec is concerned with the appropriateness and effectiveness of ways of studying the brain, and this clip could be useful for showing how fMRI works well for comparing brains between different types of people (in this case people in vegetative states with people who are not), and is effective in picking up changes in the brain at the superficial level (the motor cortex in this case).

The clip then goes on to look at a brain scan produced by diffusion tensor imagining (DTI), which is a magnetic resonance imaging technique but students need to be clear that these DTI images are not produced by fMRI. DTI images white matter structures in the brain through measurements of water diffusion, fMRI images changes in brain activity through changes in the supply of blood to brain tissues.