Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On Obedience to Authority

In the famous (or infamous) Milgram Experiment, Yale Psychology professor Stanley Milgram told volunteers that he was testing the effect of electrical shocks on memory. In reality, his goal was to test people’s obedience to authority, even when what they were being asked to do went against their personal morals.

On May 22nd, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts suggests that due to the results of some recent experiments with children and dolls, nothing has changed on the issue of race over the past forty years.

I disagree.

In the experiments he talks about, five-year-old white and black children are given light-skinned and dark-skinned dolls, and told to choose which one is the smart one or the stupid one, the pretty one or the ugly one. And the sad results are that most children, even the black ones, will pick the dark-skinned dolls as being the stupid or ugly ones.

But are we really seeing childhood racism here, or a pint-sized version of the Milgram Experiment? In the original 1961 experiments, only 35% of the volunteers refused to continue administering the shocks, despite the prodding of the person who appeared to be running the experiment. Let me put this to you a little differently: Only 35% of adults were capable of saying “No, I will not do this anymore.”

What does this have to do with five-year-olds and dolls? A lot. If only 35% of adults found it within them to question the apparent purpose of Milgram’s experiment, if 65% of the volunteers followed the instructions of the authority figure to the point of administering the last 450-volt shock, then how can we expect five-year-olds to behave any differently?

What I am saying here is that perhaps we found out more about how children respond to authority than what they think about race. What five-year-old is going to have the savvy and wherewithal to say to the grownup in charge (the authority figure) “Why are you asking me this question?” “Why are you making me choose?” Indeed, that child might not even have thought in terms of one being good and the other being bad until the authority figure put that idea into her head. And not being given an option to not choose, they made the choices they did. Seems to me that this is the sign of a flawed experiment.

And suppose some smart child did indeed say, “This is stupid.” Would they then prodded, Milgram-like, into making a choice, or would they be left alone?

I’d like to see the results of this test with the child given red and green dolls to choose from; or one doll their skin color, and a doll that was green or red or blue or purple. Really, what happens when you tell a five-year-old to make a binary choice, any binary choice, and then explain why they made that choice?

The irony of Milgram’s experiment is that after he saw how disturbed the first batch of volunteers were at finding what horrible things they were capable of doing, he continued running the experiment; obeying the “authority” of academic inquiry, rather than saying “enough already” to human suffering.

I believe that there is a similar irony with the doll experiments, in that every time we run these on kids, we may well end up putting ideas into their heads that weren’t there in the first place, and perpetuating the problem.

And for Pete’s sake, why weren’t there any Asian dolls? After all, everyone knows that they’re the really smart ones.

Or maybe five-year-olds haven’t figured that out yet.