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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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The American Museum of Natural History
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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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Learn to Spot the Sneaky Psychological Tricks Restaurants Use
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While dining out, you may have noticed (but perhaps didn’t question) some unusual features—like prices missing dollar signs, or burgers served on plates that could accommodate a baby cow.

These aren’t just arbitrary culinary decisions, as the SciShow’s Hank Green explains in the video below. Restaurants use all kinds of psychological tricks to make you spend more money, ranging from eliminating currency symbols (this makes you think less about how much things cost) to plating meals on oversize dinnerware (it makes you eat more). As for the mouthwatering language used to describe food—that burger listed as a "delectable chargrilled extravagance," for example—studies show that these types of write-ups can increase sales by up to 27 percent.

Learn more psychological tricks used by restaurants (and how to avoid falling for them) by watching the video below. (Or, read our additional coverage on the subject.)

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