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After Milgram’s infamous experiments and their subsequent ethical critiques, social psychologists have been challenged to search for ways to learn more about the psychology of destructive obedience while still holding true to modern IRB standards of participant protection. One of the ways in which this has been attempted is through the invention of newer and safer paradigms of the Milgram task, perhaps the best known of which would be Jerry Burger's (2009) partial replication of Milgram’s voice-feedback experiment. Five years later, a team of researchers devised a completely new obedience task, the simplified premise of which was to have naive participants take part in an online survey made to appear as a study in cognitive science (Haslam et al. 2014). The survey asked participants to describe images depicting groups of people with their choice of one of five listed negative words (e.g. “aggressive” or “brutal”). Initially this task was not at all abrasive in nature as the images depicted scenes such as Nazis at a rally, however the images shown incrementally became more positive in nature depicting scenes such as smiling children in a classroom; by this point, participants were meant to view the task as difficult to continue. This paradigm is discussed by Haslam et al (2014) in terms of an analogue to Burger’s. Haslam et al. (2014) report that as many as 53% of 151 participants (across 4 conditions) stopped the task, which sounds suggestive that these participants indeed found the task’s completion difficult. Though as these participants took the task online, it is unclear what their motivations were for stopping—could such a task truly present them with a situation closely analogous to that of the Berger task? This study attempted to answer this question by having 30 undergraduates from Bard College complete one of two variations of this task, the first of which had participants rate the relevant images using only negative words (as per the original task) and the second of which had them rate the negative images using only positive words. It was hypothesized that the second condition would strike participants as more difficult to complete, and therefore this condition would see higher levels of disobedience and indications of its difficulty in the post-test questionnaire. The data were inconsistent with this hypothesis. However, what was more interesting than the support or lack thereof for this hypothesis was the finding that both conditions of the task by Haslam et al. (2014) produced very low levels of both task defiance and reports of difficulty from participants. This is a finding which challenges the Haslam et al. paradigm as one to be viewed as an analogue to Burger’s. Finally, future directions are discussed which might improve the task in this regard.
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Machen, John J., "A Test of Obedience or Patience? A Modified Replication of “Nothing by Mere Authority” by Haslam et al. (2014)" (2019). Senior Projects Spring 2019. 164.
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