Ethics Whisperer

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Psychology of Reporting

Two psychology experiments give great insight into why employees find it hard to disobey their immediate supervisor and report compliance concerns. The experiments are as follows:

Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, designed an experiment in which a volunteer (the "teacher") was instructed as part of the experiment to deliver an electric shock to a subject (the "learner") when the subject gave the wrong answer to a multiple choice question. The volunteers believed that "teachers" and "learners" were randomly assigned their roles, but the "learners" were actually accomplices of Milgram. The "learner" was placed in another room where the "learner" could not be observed or heard by the "teacher".  Each time the "learner" gave an incorrect answer, the “teacher” was instructed to shock the “learner”. The level of the shock increased with each incorrect answer, ranging from a modest 15 volts up to a monstrous 450 volts. The 450 volt shock was described to the "teacher" as a "dangerous severe shock". The "teacher" was given a mild shock so he would get a sense of what the "learner" would be experiencing when the "teacher" delivered a shock. Unbeknownst to the "teachers", no real shocks were delivered to the “learners”, who could not be observed by the “teachers”.

For each trial, the "teacher" was supervised by a confederate of Milgram's dressed in a lab coat to convey the sense that he was an authority. "Teachers" were repeatedly reminded of the importance of the experiment and told that not completing the trial would invalidate the whole study. Most of the "teachers" eventually administered huge "shocks" to the "learners". At 300 volts, some of the "learners" were told to kick and scream loudly enough to be heard through the wall by the "teacher". A few "teachers" objected or dropped out of the experiment at this point, but most "teachers" ended up delivering the maximum shock of 450 volts to the "learner". The experiment, which has been replicated several times, has been taken to show the extent to which an authority figure, in the case the person in the lab coat, can persuade otherwise normal individuals to inflict terrible pain on others.

Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist conducted a related experiment.

Zimbardo divided a group of volunteers into two groups of equal size, "guards" and "prisoners". The volunteers were told that they would participate in a two week simulation of prison life. Both "guards" and "prisoners" received uniforms appropriate to their roles. The uniforms given to "prisoners" were even more demeaning than those used in most real prisons. "Guards" received "training" on the essentials of their roles, while prisoners were given prisoner numbers and cell assignments. "Guards" were told to maintain obedience on the part of "prisoners", while "prisoner" were addressed only by their numbers. A prison “warden” and “superintendent” (Zimbrado himself) were appointed. All of this occurred in a mock prison in the basement of a Stanford University building. The participants were able to leave the premises at any time without anyone’s permission, and yet none did so. (Some volunteers experienced such high levels of distress that they were "released" early by Zimbardo.) The volunteers were so committed to their roles that "guards" struck "prisoners" with billy sticks and forced them to clean toilets with their bare hands - and the "prisoners" complied. The experiment was terminated after six days when an outsider observed how far things had gone and told Zimbardo that he had to stop the experiment.
Both of these experiments show the power of organizational roles. Since "employee" is the predominant work-related role for potential reporters and hotline users, you can see why our task, which involves defeating that role response, is difficult.