The Power of the Peer (ANECDOTE)


Stanley Milgram ExperimentIn 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram was trying to make sense of the atrocities of World War II.  He wanted to know what type of person could be compelled to treat people with the level of cruelty that came from the Nazi regime, so he devised an experiment and took out an ad in the local newspaper.  The ad invited people to come to the basement of a building at Yale University and participate in an experiment to test the effects of negative reinforcement on learning.  For an hour of their time, they would be paid $4.50.

When the subjects arrived, there was always another person in the waiting area.  This person was a confederate of Dr. Milgram’s (meaning that this person knew about the experiment and had a role to play).  The confederate would start a friendly conversation with the subject until a scientist in a white, lab jacket appeared and asked both people to draw a slip of paper out of a bowl.  The slip of paper told them what their role would be: “teacher” or “learner.”  In actuality, both slips said “teacher,” so that the subject would always be in the “teacher” role.

The two people would then be led to a small booth, where the confederate (the “learner”) sat down and had a special paste applied to his arms.  The scientist said that this was to help administer the shocks from the electrodes, which were then attached to his arms.  The confederate would then ask, “I have a little bit of a heart condition; will it be a problem?”  And the scientist always responded, “No.  The shocks are painful, but they aren’t dangerous.”

The subject would then be led into the next room and shown a piece of machinery that he would use to send shocks to the “learner.”  The scientist would give the subject a 45-volt shock from the machine to demonstrate what it would feel like.  Then, the scientist would give instructions about how the experiment was to be conducted.  The subject (the “teacher”) would read out two words loudly enough to be heard in the next room.  Then, he would read the first word again and wait for the “learner” to remember and say the second one.  If the “learner” got it incorrect, the “teacher” would flip a switch to shock him.  Each time he missed a word, the voltage would be turned up until it reached a maximum of 450 volts (ten times the shock the subject had received, which was unpleasant even at that low level).

In truth, the “learner” didn’t get any shock at all, but the “teacher” didn’t know that.  The first shock brought a grunt from the “learner.”  The second, a mild protest.  Then stronger protests.  Then screaming, shouting and banging on the wall while yelling, “I have a HEART problem!”  After 315 volts, the “teacher” would only hear silence when he flipped the switch.

You probably think you would refuse to participate in such a study once you saw what it was all about, and maybe you would.  But would you believe that 65% of the subjects continued to administer shocks all the way up to the maximum level?  Many protested during the experiment and asked if they could stop, but the scientist in the white lab coat would just say, “The experiment calls for you to continue.”  If the subject protested five times, the experiment was ended, but over half of the subjects were intimidated by the authority figure in the white lab coat and continued to give shocks even after they thought they might have seriously injured the friendly stranger they met a few minutes before.

Dr. Milgram experimented with every variable (room size, the look of the machine, distance from the “learner” and many others), but he found one factor that made the biggest difference in how the subject behaved – having another person in the room.  If a second “subject” (also a confederate of Dr. Milgram) refused to administer the shocks, only 10% of the subjects would continue.  But if the second “subject” continued to the maximum of 450 volts, 90% of the subjects would do it, too!!  That’s the power of the peer.

Peer pressure is a powerful motivator.  The subjects in the experiment didn’t want to be the ones who were too timid to do what the experiment required when their peer seemed to have no problem with it.  Others didn’t want to be the ones who appeared cruel when their peer took a moral stand.  Seeing their peer act in a particular way either pressured them to suppress their concerns or gave them the confidence they needed to challenge the authority figure in the white lab coat.

We care what other people think about us.  Maybe we shouldn’t, but we do. And so do your team members.  Especially those who have less status or standing in a group because they are newer or younger or less experienced or less mature.  This dynamic shouldn’t be ignored when you are trying to motivate a group to change their behaviors.  If influential peers* don’t support your change, you probably won’t get the support of other team members.  Make sure your strategy for implementing your change includes engaging these high-influence staff members.  Connect with them first.  Get their buy-in.  Respond to their concerns.  Give them a role and responsibilities in the change.

When everyone else sees them supporting the change, they will be more likely to follow their example.  If you neglect to engage your high-influence staff members, don’t be surprised when you get some shocking resistance.

* The staff members with influence are often those who are more articulate, older, more experienced, come from a higher social class, have connections or have some other status that is highly regarded in your culture.

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Filed under Accountability, Change, Character, Influence, Peer Pressure

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