Would you torture another person if you were ordered to? According to a study by researchers at Santa Clara University in California most would.
The experiment partially explains why prisoners have been abused at the hands of American troops at the U.S. run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
70 per cent of volunteers after being encouraged by authority to administer electric shocks did so even when an actor working in the study expressed being in pain.
Jerry Burger said: ‘What we found is validation of the same argument – if you put people into certain situations, they will act in surprising, and maybe often even disturbing, ways.
‘This research is still relevant.’
The experiment was first published in 1961 by Yale professor Stanley Milgram. That experiment had volunteers deliver electrical shocks to people if questions were answered incorrectly. That study showed that the volunteers heard the actor cry out in pain at 150 volts. 82.5 per cent of those in the study continued shocking the actors, most to the maximum 450 voltage.
‘When you hear the man scream and say, “let me out, I can’t stand it,” that is the point when the real stress that people criticised Milgram for kicked in,’ Burger said.
‘It was a very, very, very stressful experience for many of the participants. That is the reason no one can ethically replicate the experiment today.’
Burger modified the study using 150 volts as the maximum shock for the 29 men and 41 women in his study. He measured how many of his volunteers went to give another shock when prompted by the leader of the experiment. He then stopped them instead of allowing the participants continue to shock the actors.
In the original experiment the turning point appeared to be 150 volts.
The participants in Burger’s experiment were aged 20 to 81. He screened them to make sure they were an average representative of the United States public.
He says that his study can only partly explain why prisoners can be abused as they have been at Abu Ghraib prison or events that took place during World War II.
Burger wrote: ‘Although one must be cautious when making the leap from laboratory studies to complex social behaviors such as genocide, understanding the social psychological factors that contribute to people acting in unexpected and unsettling ways is important.
‘It is not that there is something wrong with the people.
‘The idea has been somehow there was this characteristic that people had back in the early 1960s that they were somehow more prone to obedience.’