Psychologist Stanley Milgram's 1961 experiment into obedience is one of the most famous studies in history.

It investigated the dark side of human nature by asking 800 people to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to an unseen stranger when they made mistakes during a word task. Participants were pressed to deliver increasingly painful shocks to 'students' by an authority figure. Two thirds of those in the experiment continued to deliver shocks to the highest level, a potential lethal 450 volts, despite hearing the screams of the 'students', who were actually actors.

No one was physically harmed in the experiment, which was devised after the trial of Adolf Eichmann where he claimed he and other Nazi war criminals were "just following orders". It is thought it taught the world something about why people yield to the powerful in totalitarian states. But Matthew Hollander, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes there is more to the study than that.

In research published in the British Journal of Social Psychology Hollander notes that Milgram's participants were classified as either disobedient or obedient. But through examining the experiences of more than 100 of the participants in Milgram's experiment and listening to recordings of the study, Hollander found some resisted in a number of subtle ways including using uncomfortable laughter to express their disagreement while some were more explicit.

Before examining these recordings, I was imagining some really aggressive ways of stopping the experiment -- trying to open the door where the 'learner' is locked in, yelling at the experimenter, trying to leave. What I found was there are many ways to try to stop the experiment, but they're less aggressive.

  • Matthew Hollander

Commenting on the findings Douglas Maynard, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said: "It wasn't like they automatically caved in. They really worked to counter what was coming at them. It wasn't a blind kind of obedience."

Another study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology last September also suggested the results had been misinterpreted with participants obeying not because of a latent capability for evil but because it made them feel good about their task.

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