American Sociological Association

From “Ridiculous” to “Glad to Have Helped”: Debriefing News Delivery and Improved Reactions to Science in Milgram’s “Obedience” Experiments

Commentators on Milgram’s classic and controversial experiments agree that better integration of theories of “obedience to authority” with current archival research on participants’ viewpoints is essential in explaining compliance. Using conversation analysis, we examine an archived data source that is largely overlooked by the Milgram literature, yet crucial for understanding the interactional organization of participants’ displayed perspectives. In hundreds of interviews conducted immediately after each experiment, participants received one of two types of debriefing: deceptive or full. Analyzing 56 full debriefings from three experimental conditions, we find they featured interactional structuring as news delivery sequences and that debriefing news could transform initially ambivalent or negative assessments of the experiment into positive ones. Such findings reveal limitations of engaged followership, the currently dominant theory of “obedience.” Following discussion of improved assessments’ relevance to public attitudes toward science, we conclude that multiple social psychological processes were at work in producing Milgram’s results.


Jason Turowetz





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