The destructive way authority sometimes influences people was shown sixty years ago in groundbreaking experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram. The famous Yale psychologist showed that a large majority of people administrated painful and potentially lethal electric shocks to an innocent human victim (who was actually unharmed, although participants did not know this) during a fake study on learning. While these studies were reproduced in many countries and in various settings (including virtual reality), the reasons underlying this powerful and frightening phenomenon remain to be fully clarified.

According to Milgram, his participants transferred their own agency and responsibility to the experimenter and thus became “thoughtless agents of action.” However, many scholars consider that a participant’s willingness to administer electric shocks cannot be properly explained by blind obedience. Instead, it may be a function of their active identification with the scientific enterprise underlying the experiment. However, strong proofs of this hypothesis are still lacking.

A New Experiment Involving An Animal

In order to fill this gap, we created a completely new experimental situation involving an animal victim. This inflicts less psychic stress on human participants, but also addresses the genuine moral conflict created by the massive use of animals in experimentation. While the earlier view of animals as insensitive machines has been widely disproved by scientific studies revealing the complex mental lives of animals, in laboratories they are still considered as scientific tools. Worldwide, more than 115 million of them are killed every year for research purposes. This also creates moral dilemmas and distress for laboratory staff who perform invasive or painful experiments.

In our recent experiments, modeled on Milgram’s methods, participants were required to incrementally administer a noxious chemical substance to a large (20-inch) fish as part of a learning experiment, leading to the death of the animal. The fish was actually a biomimetic robot that swam in a tank across the room from the participant, who thought it was real.

You can see a short video of the setting here:

The administered substance was supposed to stimulate learning in the context of research on Alzheimer’s disease. However, an important side effect of the drug was its consequences on vital functions at high dosages. Participants were informed that the toxic substance would be painful and lethal at higher doses for the animal.

In order to perform the task, participants had to click successively on twelve buttons, which each time triggered the injection via a motorized syringe into the water of extra doses of the toxic pharmacological substance. When they were reluctant to continue, a research assistant asked them to keep on pressing the buttons.

During the task, participants were asked to observe the behavior of a fish on a supposed learning task, and were told that the twelve-dose drug administration would influence the fish’s competence on the task. Below the buttons, the expected probability of the death of the fish was written, as follows: 0% probability of death (button 1); 33% (button 3); 50% (button 6); 75% (button 9); and 100% (button 12). Moreover, the cardiac pace of the animal was shown on a screen, which also produced auditory feedback to indicate cardiac distress.

As in Milgram’s studies, many participants (both males and females) stuck with the task until the end, injecting the twelve doses leading to certain death. More precisely, while 28% of the participants refused to begin the task, about 44% finished the experiment (injecting the 12 doses and killing the fish), between 1% and 6% stopped at each intermediate level, and a full 44% went all the way, killing the fish.

Killing An Animal For Science

In another experiment, we reasoned that if science represents a cultural authority, the mere suggestion of science would increase a participant’s willingness to go along. In order to do this, we repeated the same experiment with the fish, but this time we made our participants think either positively or negatively about science:

  • Half the participants were assigned to a “science promotion” condition where they wrote write down three things that were important about science, what they liked about science, and what they felt they had in common with scientists.
  • The other half of the participants were assigned to a “science critical” condition where they had to list three things they believed to be problematic about science, what they disliked about science, and what differentiated them from scientists.
  • Then they all did the learning task with the fish.

As we hypothesized, those in a pro-scientific mindset were more willing to follow the experimenter’s instructions to keep going, thus inflicting more and more pain on the fish.

Also, based on other questions we asked our participants, people who placed more value on non-egalitarian and hierarchical relationships among social groups, and believed more that humans are more valuable than other species, injected more toxic doses to the fish. And non-vegetarians were more likely to kill the animal.

The fact that just writing about good aspects of science (regardless of one’s own prior attitudes) predicts people’s harmful behavior toward an animal suggests that obedience is probably not as blind as Milgram claimed—it is also influenced by explicit motives. Science represents today the most influential cultural authority. In our experiment, we showed that ordinary citizens can agree to inflict pain and to kill an animal not merely to obey an authority figure, but in the name of science.

For Further Reading

Bègue, L., & Vezirian, K. (2021). Sacrificing animals in the name of scientific authority: The relationship between pro-scientific mindset and the lethal use of animals in biomedical experimentation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi: 10.1177/01461672211039413

Dolinski, D., & Gryb, T. (2020). The social psychology of obedience towards authority. London: Routledge.

Laurent Bègue is professor at University Grenoble Alpes. He authored The Psychology of Good and Evil, Oxford University Press, 2016. His research deals with human aggression.

Kevin Vezirian is a PhD student at University Grenoble Alpes and is interested in psychological processes underlying animal objectification.