The Milgram experiment was replicated at the University of British Columbia last month.
One of the most influential psychology studies of all time, the experiment involves a participant who (incorrectly) believes they are delivering harmful electric shocks to a confederate behind a wall, but who continues to do so under the pressure of authority.
The experiment was set up exactly as it had been when Milgram initially ran it back in 1961. The only difference was that instead of participants being told they were delivering painful electric shocks to the confederate, participants were told that they would be forcing the confederate to listen to short excerpts of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, one of the greatest free jazz records of all time.
When Milgram ran the original experiment, participants were assigned the role of the “teacher”, and confederates the role of the “learner”. They were separated by a barrier in which they could not see one another but could still communicate. The “teacher” was given a list of word pairs he was to teach the “learner”, and if the “learner” was unable to correctly remember which words paired with which, the “teacher” had to shock them.
Most participants were willing to deliver several electric shocks, and many were willing to deliver electric shocks so severe they thought it caused the confederate to pass out. But in this recent study, not even a single participant was willing to subject the confederate to a mere seven seconds of Dolphy’s free jazz opus.
Here is a transcription of the dialogue between experimenter Dr. Logan Trevors, and William, one of the 244 participants in the UBC replication.
Dr. Trevors: “Alright William, your compatriot has failed at his verbal task. You must now flip the first switch, which will play him a short snippet of ‘Hat and Beard’, a critically acclaimed atonal romp and the first track off of ‘Out to Lunch.'”
William: “I’m afraid I can’t do that sir. It just isn’t right.”
Dr. Trevors: “Please continue.”
William: “I can’t violate my own ethics sir. I mean, the bass clarinet in that song sounds like a chicken being hacked to death with a mallet, and the rhythm section does a terrible job of making the 9/4 time signature palatable. It’s just not something I can subject others to.”
Dr. Trevors: “The experiment requires that you continue.”
William: “My answer is no. I’ll even give you back my SONA credit if you want, but I can’t be responsible for the corruption of an innocent man’s musical palette. I mean, what was Dolphy even thinking? I can’t believe Mingus ever even let him join his big band. It’s out of the question sir, absolutely and entirely out of the question, and that’s the last you’ll hear from me on the matter.”
Given the striking results of this study, Dr. Trevors and his Colleagues have several followup studies in the works.
“We’re thinking of adding two more conditions,” said Dr. Trevors. “A milder condition where we use Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, and a more extreme condition where we use Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Variations. However, we’re very uncertain as to whether Spiritual Variations could make it past the research and ethics board. It is a painfully cacophonous piece of music, and it would be extremely upsetting for an individual to believe he or she had exposed another person to it, even as part of an experiment.”