Emotional Health · Film & Television

Three Identical Strangers:
A Documentary Examines the Ethics
of Psychology Experiments

How could such a thing happen? It is not an isolated example, unfortunately. In the first half of the 20th century, when psychiatry was young and psychoanalysis was in its infancy, scholars were enthusiastic about these new disciplines, and eager to learn more. They were also defensive about criticism that suggested these were not “real” scientific theories and that they could not be studied with the same rigor as serious sciences like chemistry or physics.

World War II, especially the Holocaust, ignited an urgent need to learn more about psychology. Many were asking how can we understand the limits of human behavior and how to shape it in light of this catastrophe? Scholars churned out studies like Theodor W. Adorno’s “The Authoritarian Personality,” and books like Hannah Arendt’s “The Banality of Evil” to offer explanations.

Researchers, meanwhile, rolled up their sleeves and began designing experiments to test these ideas. If the Nazis depended on blind obedience to authority, as these works suggested, could such obedience be replicated in the lab?

A psychologist at Yale, Stanley Milgram, set out to answer that question. In a study so famous that many psychology texts still reference it, Milgram and his colleagues put an ad in a local New Haven newspaper asking for subjects. These people were to be paid for participating in a learning study, they were told. They were all selected randomly and it was explained that they would be partnered with another subject who would be given a series of increasingly hard tasks. If their partner, invisible but audible from another room,  failed a task, the volunteer was instructed by a white-coated lab worker to administer a shock to him. They were each supplied with an instrument that measured how strong the shock was.

The results were astonishing. In reality, the experiment was a hoax. The “partner” in the other room was another researcher, and no one was shocked. However, the unwitting subjects of the experiment were willing to administer what they thought were real volts whose levels read “dangerous” while the lab assistants faked shrieking pain from the next room.

65% of the subjects proceeded to the most extreme voltage levels at the urging of the white-coated professionals.

This experiment was heralded at the time, though the results were obviously disturbing. If average Americans were willing to harm strangers at the urging of an unknown “professional,” whose only accreditation was a lab coat, what did this mean about human behavior? Did this experiment vindicate the Nazis in some way?

Milgram did variants on the experiment, finding that results indicated it was the “authority” figure that made the most difference. Social psychologists believe that humans have evolved to follow the norms of their peer groups, and are even more likely to do so when an authority figure is present.

These studies have gathered a lot of criticism, especially since it has been revealed that the subjects suffered from guilt and shame when the results were published. The idea of using subjects who are kept in the dark has been called into question, and in science in general, the line where thirst for knowledge blurs the boundaries of ethical treatment of human and animal subjects must be strictly monitored. Human beings are curious creatures. Their creativity is boundless but their humanity must be closely guarded.



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