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New Study Replicates Stanley Milgram’s Infamous Shock Experiments

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In the early 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram recruited hundreds of men for a series of experiments on obedience and authority. He asked them to administer a series of increasingly powerful shocks to a person in another room. The man being “shocked” was, in reality, an actor hired by the lab, and the screams of pain the participants could hear from the other room were pre-recorded. Perversely, plenty of the participants obeyed the experimenters’ prompts to hurt strangers.

Half a century later, the Milgram experiments are, though controversial, a bastion of the psychology canon, and a number of modern researchers have set out to replicate his findings. In the latest iteration, a group of Polish researchers found that 90 percent of participants were willing to administer the highest voltage shocks available to another person when asked to—a similarly high number as in Milgram’s original experiments.

In a study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers from the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Wrocław, Poland recruited 40 men and 40 women to participate in a re-make of Milgram’s study. However, in this case, both those administering the shocks and those “receiving” the shocks were a mix of men and women, while in Milgram’s experiments both the participants and the actors were men.

Like Milgram’s subjects, they were told they were participating in a study on memory and learning and that they would be playing the part of the teacher, while the other person in the lab (an actor) would be the student. The “student” was supposed to learn associations between certain syllables, and the "teacher" was instructed to read a set of those syllables aloud. The teacher was given 10 buttons that they were told would administer shocks of increasing intensity. When the student made a mistake, the experimenter instructed the participant to shock him or her. The student was hidden behind a wall, but the participants could hear pre-recorded screams of pain.

The participants were initially told they could stop the experiment at any time and that stopping would not require them to give back the $15 they had received for their participation. But once the shocks started, the experimenters urged the participants to continue shocking the student despite any reservations they expressed. The experimenters used phrases similar to those Milgram employed, such as “The experiment requires that you continue,” “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” and “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

A full 90 percent of the participants went on to press the 10th button, administering what they thought was the highest voltage of shock.

Whether or not people were willing to continue shocking strangers may have been influenced by the gender of the stranger, the study’s authors write, though the effect was small. “When it was a woman being ‘zapped,’ participants were 3 times more likely to withdraw from the experiment (regardless of their own sex). However, the fact that only 10 percent of our participants failed to perform all of the experimenter’s commands means that this difference is far from statistically significant.”

According to the study, this is the first time Milgram’s experiments have been replicated in Central Europe, where relationships to authority may be different than in the New Haven, Connecticut community Stanley Milgram recruited from. As a Soviet state for decades, Polish freedoms were severely restricted, and both in school curriculums and in the culture at large, there was a strong emphasis on obedience to authority. Though the collapse of the Soviet Union brought democratic elections, free speech, and a free press, some of those liberal ideals have seen a reversal in recent years as the hard-right Law and Justice party has gained power.

This study was relatively small, and larger studies might be able to confirm whether the gender of the person being shocked might influence people’s willingness to go along with the experiment. The high percentage of people who followed instructions, though, suggests that Milgram’s dim view of human nature wasn’t wrong. People really can be bullied into hurting other people pretty easily. Still, it would be interesting to replicate these studies with larger, more culturally diverse groups of people, examining how participants’ inherent views on authoritarianism and obedience might influence their responses.

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Have You Heard? Trading Gossip Can Be Good for You
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Like picking your nose or re-using a dirty coffee cup, trading petty observations and suspicions about others is a function of life no one takes any particular pride in. You might have been told by parents not to say anything about someone "behind their back," and gossip often involves some degree of schadenfreude. In terms of keeping a positive outlook, there's not much to be said for chattering about whether someone got a facelift or if a divorce might be imminent.

Or is there? Ben Healy of The Atlantic recently aggregated compelling data that points to gossip having surprising benefits. When two people discuss negative feelings about a third, they tend to bond over the shared hostility more than if they were sharing pleasant thoughts about him or her. The badmouthing parties also tend to enjoy a sense of accomplishment by reflecting on their own positive traits compared to the failure of others. They might even take a "lesson" from an anecdote about someone's catastrophic life, using it as a cautionary tale. If the gossip has a positive slant, it might be used as inspiration to pursue self-improvement.

That's the other surprising thing about gossip: 96 percent of the time or more, it's not overly negative. Among adolescents, it's usually used to vent about frustrations or to create conversation in pursuit of a bonding experience.  

If gossip truly is good for the soul, most of us are in luck. Talking about an absentee third person is what accounts for two-thirds of all conversation.

[h/t Atlantic]

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Pucker Up: Tasting Something Sour Is Linked to Taking Risks
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Getting out of your comfort zone may be as easy as eating something sour, according to Discover. A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports links tasting sour substances with being more prone to risk-taking.

The study examined the relationship between taste and behavior in 168 participants in two countries using a computerized measurement tool called the Balloon Analogue Risk-Task (BART). Participants have to click a mouse button to inflate a balloon on the screen. They accumulate cash rewards as the balloon expands, but if it explodes, they lose everything—meaning that with each click, they could earn more, but they run the risk of losing their money.

Before they began the task, the participants drank a cup of water that potentially contained one of five different basic taste solutions—bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami—or plain water with no taste added. They also completed questionnaires designed to measure personality traits like impulsiveness and risk-taking. They played the gambling game twice.

The researchers found that the sour taste was associated with risk-taking, while sweet and umami tastes made participants more likely to play it safe. Salty and bitter tastes seemed not to have an effect at all on behavior. Participants who drank the sour solution pumped the balloons around 40 percent fuller than those who drank the sweet solution or the umami solution, on average. The sweet group hesitated the most before choosing whether to pump up the balloon or cash out.

To make sure that the results weren’t too skewed by cultural perceptions of taste, the same two trials took place both in the UK and in Vietnam. The latter has some of the highest MSG consumption in the world, potentially counteracting the fact that people in the UK might not be accustomed to the taste of umami. In the Vietnamese study, the sour taste was linked to the highest risk taking, but sweet and umami tastes also seemed to promote risky behavior.

In a third test that took place in the UK, participants were briefed on the average point that the randomized balloon explosions took place. Rather than being totally uncertain when the balloon would explode, they were told it typically exploded around 64 pumps. Again, the sour group took more risks. This held true whether the participants were found to be more analytic decision-makers or more intuitive decision-makers. 

While it might not be a great idea to start binging on Warheads if you’re a gambling addict, the researchers write that “at least in the context for the BART task involving potentially winning small amounts of money, sour does not provoke people to indulge in reckless risky habits.” Instead, they write, it “has unique attributes to modulate risk-taking and may encourage risk-averse people to take new opportunities and potentially lead to a happier life.” They suggest that people with high anxiety or who are otherwise painfully averse to taking risks might want to consider adding more sour substances to their diet.

[h/t Discover]

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