Cinque Terre

Gullion Media Limited


Getting the question wrong.

By George Kingsnorth


It started out quite innocently. We were sitting in the Golf Inn participating in a Pub Quizz. The funds were going to a local hospice and the question was on psychology.

You're up, George. That's your bag,” came the vocal opinion from another ream member.

Whose experiments in 1963 determined obedience is a result of the participant becoming an 'Agent' of the authority?” asked the Quizmaster.

I rattled my brain and thought of Alberta Bandura's experiment with the Bobo doll which occurred around that time. In this experiment a group of children were shown a film of a teacher repeatedly knocking the Bobo doll to the ground. When the same children were individually left in a playroom with the Bobo doll they imitated the teacher, some more violently than the others.

However, when the Quizmaster gave out the answers to the round the correct answer was Stanley Milgram. I couldn't remember the name. So this got me started on a journey of discovery. What I found interesting was how what Milgram research was very much associated with my own current interests in social psychology and that I was aware of his experiments.

Since completing a Master of Education, I had been looking into the psychology, exploring Behaviourism, Cognitivism and Constructivism as approaches to learning. I had also shown my students how Bandura's experiments had influence children who had seen the film of the teacher hitting the Bobo doll as we had explored the influence of film on audiences. Amongst my group of students we had discussed how when we found ourselves in different groups we tended to conform to the rules and regulations associated with the group in order to fit in. Most groups have a set of rules their members are required to follow or else they are expelled.

Part of my current reading is Matthew Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head who discusses how a person will happily give up their individuality in order to conform to the framework of a given practice, such as a musician following the notes of a score or a linguist following the structure of a language in order to be understood by others. Yet, contemporary Americans tend to be adverse to the notion of community or society in preference to the freedom they perceive should be granted to the individual. Crawford quotes Emerson essay “Self-Reliance”:

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. (Crawford, 2015, p.130)

Crawford suggests American culture struggles with how attention to the world about us restricts the individual who can only achieve freedom effectively within their own head. As a teacher one has to sacrifice individual ambitions in order to lead students towards their learning goals. To be part of a team one has to learn how to work with others so that a collective goal can be achieved. Working individually, lets say within a football game can lead to your team losing, if you selfishly hog the ball. It also means that if you are out for your own self-glory the opposing team can effectively capture the ball from you and hamper your effects to reclaim it. In this situation collectively, more can be achieved in the group than by the individual.

This is also the case with making a film. Individually, it can take a long time to make a film but with a group of people each carrying out a specific role more can be achieved in less time. Less effort is required by each individual. This reminds me of Johnny Cash's song One Piece at a Time (1976) where the protagonist tries to build a car one piece at a time over a span of years, dreaming he will have a luxurious automobile but ends up with mongrel of a car that everyone laughs at.

So, obviously, more can be achieved in less time if a teams works together, even if there has to be some compromises on the way.

The Nuremberg War Criminal trials were held between 1945 to 1949. Many of the accused had justified their acts of genocide during World War II as just following orders (McLeod, 2007). After Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem in 1961, Milgram set up an experiment to determine if it was possible that “Eichmann and millions of accomplices in the Holocaust were only following orders?” (Milgram, 1974).

In Milgram's experiment, two participants drew slips pf paper to see who would be the teacher and the learner. However, only one person was actually a volunteer, the other was an actor. The volunteer always took on the role of the teacher. Prior to the test, each participate was given a sample electric shock to given them first hand experience of how it felt. During the experiment the teacher was then given a list of word pairs which the learner had to get correct or else be given an electric shock. The voltage would then be increase each time the learner got the answer wrong.

The experimenter and teacher were then seated in one room and the learner sat in a separate room wired up to a electro-shock generator. As the questions began the actor playing the learner would constantly get the answers wrong and the teacher would be asked to give an electric shock. In reality no shock was given. As the switch to administer the shock was attached to a tape-recorder activating a sound that the learner responded to, acting out their pain.

Eventually as the voltage was increase to around 135 volts many volunteers wished to stop and questioned the purpose behind the experiment. Many continued once assured the responsibility was not their's. Other volunteers would laugh nervously, showing signs of stress on hearing the screams of the learner in the other room. If questioned again the experimenter would ask the teacher to continue and if necessary indicate they had no choice but to go on. (Wikipedia, 2016)

uring the first set of experiments, 65% of the volunteers administered the full 450 volt shock, the maximum amount possible. Though many were stressed by the situation and paused to question they carried on when put under pressure, especially when the authoritative figure tells them he would take full responsibility. In the early 1960s, American audiences were horrified to find that ordinary people were capable of doing atrocious acts if told to do so by someone in authority.

Milgram suggested that people have two states of mind, an autonomous state, where the person directs their own actions and takes responsibility for the consequences, and an agentic state, where they allow others to direct them, passing off all responsibility to the person giving orders,even to the point of killing another human being. (McLeod, 2007). However, if the participants were told they had full responsibility for their own actions most were not prepared to continue. Interestingly, if the participant was in the same room as the learner and required to force the learner's hand onto a shock plate most refused to do so after 150volts (McLeod, 2007).

I watched a video of a US drone pilot based in America, who said that he was at home in the morning having breakfast with his kids before going off to fly drones in Afghanistan or Iraq, and was often home to have evening meals with the family. As he said this, his expression changed as though the cognitive process had clicked on what he had just said. Yet many youngsters today play console games, talking to friends around the world as they shoot at virtual tanks and planes.

Another story in the MailOnline tells of a drone pilot struggling with what he was doing flying Predator drones, seeing innocents die and then suffering from stress (post-traumatic stress syndrome) eventually having to leave the army (Pow, 2012).

A few years ago, I went with my two sons on a BB shoot. A wargame situation. At one point I was hit by a crossfire of pellets, I shouted 'hit' and walked out of the game area with a bloody lip. When I arrived back, many teenagers who had quickly gone out were eager to get back in, to re-spawn as they had done on their computer games.

The worrying thing is that with virtual reality (VR) becoming so realistic with high-definition images reaching 8K and beyond at 60 frame per second will we become so lost in VR that we won't be able to distinguish between what is real and what is an illusion?

In this world to survive we need to come out of our own heads and interact with others in society, we have to be able to offer something so that in return we can pay our own way and make a living. To do this we are forced to conform to the institutional frameworks that restrict our own individualistic ideals but how far will we go before we say no? Or do we just continue on assigning all the responsibility to the person that asked us to carry out a given task? Do we know when the question is wrong? Or do we assume that the authority figure is always telling the truth? In either situation are we certain we know how to ask the right question?


Bandura, A.(1965). "Influence of models' reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology1(6): 589–595.doi10.1037/h0022070

Cash, J. (1976)One Piece at a Time

Crawford, M. (2015) The World Beyond Your Head – How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction, Penguin Books: St. Ives.

History Channel (2015) Nuremberg Trials, History Channel. Available from: (Accessed on 4th May 2016)

McLeod, S. (2007) The Milgram Experiment, Simply Psychology Available from: (Accessed on 4th May 2016)

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. Harpercollins.

MLC DIU (1962) The Milgram Experiment 1962 Full Documentary>YouTube Available from: (Accessed on 4th May 2016)

Pow, H. (2012) 'Did we just kill a kid?': The moment drone operator who assassinated Afghans with the push of a button on a computer in the U.S. realized he had vaporized a child... and could not go on. MailOnline. Available from: (Accessed on 4th May 2016)

Wikipedia (2016) Milgram experiment, Available from: (Accessed on 4th May 2016)