Milgram’s experiment and Gamification

The Milgram Experiment (Milgram, 1963) is a famous series of social experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s at Yale University. It was devised to answer a popular question at the time (when the trial of the German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was taking place): whether the actions of his subordinates could be considered criminal, or whether they were just following actions.

The study involved three participants: the experimenter, the subject, and a confederate who would take on the role of the student. The subject would be given the role of teaching word-pairs to the student, and by a trial-and-error method the student had to reply with the correct word from a choice of four. If the answer was incorrect, the subject would administer an electric shock to the student, with 15-volt increments for each wrong answer, up to a lethal maximum of 450-volts.

However, unbeknownst to the subject, there would be no electric shocks in reality, and the volunteer would instead play pre-recorded sounds for each shock level, giving the illusion that the student is in pain. If at any point subjects indicated a desire to halt the experiment, they would be given a verbal prod by the experimenter, such as “the experiment requires that you continue”, or “you have no other choice, you must go on”.

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The experiment showed that around 65% of subjects were willing to administer the final 450-volt shock, although many were very uncomfortable in doing so. In essence, Milgram showed that people are willing to go to great (and sometimes immoral) lengths simply on the command of an authoritative figure. When subjects relinquished responsibility, they continued to administer potentially fatal shocks to the student in the experiment. Milgram explained this behaviour with what he called the agentic state theory, which argues that individuals come to view themselves as instruments for carrying out another person’s instructions, and no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions.

The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow. – Stanley Milgram (1973)

In the context of gamification, there are some lessons that can be drawn from this study. For instance, when individuals are required to complete gamified challenges or activities, the resulting sense of motivation or engagement may be reduced, or even eliminated (“I want to complete more challenges to score higher/learn more” becomes “I am doing this because I need to pass/qualify”). They are in an agentic state, carrying out challenges as instructed.

A recent study (Mollick & Rothbard, 2013) from the Wharton School at UPenn examines exactly this: even if gamification is fun and employees delight at games in their private lives, they are a lot less engaged by games that are mandated. The authors found that mandatory fun resulted in a decrease in positive affect, as well as a marginal decrease in job performance, which brings home the following point: when the need to utilise gamification systems is imposed on individuals, it becomes a chore, another requirement for employees to fulfil. Consider a time when you were forced to play a game (as part of a class or workplace engagement programme), and compare that to a time where you voluntarily joined a group (of friends or like-minded individuals) to play a game.

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Effective gamification taps onto instrinsic rewards that drive workplace behaviour, for instance personal achievement, or the subjective experience of fun. However, when the sense of agency is removed, all corresponding benefits(or harm) follows; although a well designed system can re-engage individuals when they are exposed to it. Notably, there is currently a growing amount of research interest in the role of consent and how it contributes to employee engagement (see Burawoy, 1979).

Failures in gamification ultimately boil down to two main factors: poor platform design, and undue directives by management sources. The latter, also affectionately known as ‘forced fun’, can quickly turn something enjoyable into another dreadful aspect of the workplace. So how can we avoid the ‘forced fun’ trap? Here are some tips (adapted from Darcy Jacobsen from Globoforce):

  • Gamify aspects of the workplace only where necessary: The introduction of leaderboards and badges can be effective when driving competition, such as in sales incentive programmes. However, in other departments of the organization, they can force a false (and sometimes detrimental) dimension of competition onto cooperative work, changing those programmes into something that employees may not be comfortable with. Be cautious where it is used to avoid poisoning your culture in areas like recognition and fun.
  • Make fun voluntary: Many cultures thrive on pizza parties and sack races, so don’t think you have to cancel them entirely. Just ensure that they are voluntary, and there is no explicit or implicit coercion to make employees participate.
  • Understand that engagement isn’t uniform: Engagement comes in many forms. Try not to judge other people’s engagement by your own preference, but rather by the results of their work. Never judge someone’s engagement by their willingness to participate (or not) in activities. This is the surest way to kill engagement. Similarly, make sure your culture has differing modes of fun that can appeal to different types of people. For instance, introverts have unique needs and contributions, and also their own sense of what is fun and what is not. Take the time to understand it and it will pay off.
  • Remember that choice is always fun:  When you recognize employees in a way where they can turn that recognition into whatever reward they choose, they will always maximize their fun. Consider employee reward schemes where awards can be redeemed for gift cards, items, trips, meals, gifts for others, charitable contributions, or even, yes, fun outings with (willing) co-workers. Choosing rewards for others will always backfire for someone; allowing a choice from a large pool of possibilities (or even employee-suggested ones) ensures that the fun will never be forced.
 References:

Jacobsen, D. (2014). The Dark Side of Fun | Globoforce Blog. Globoforce.com. Retrieved 21 July 2014, from http://www.globoforce.com/gfblog/2014/the-dark-side-of-fun/

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioural Study of Obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority. An Experimental View. Harper, New York.

Mollick, E. R., & Rothbard, N. (2013). Mandatory Fun: Gamification and the Impact of Games at Work. The Wharton School Research Paper Series.

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This post was contributed by Jonathan Goh, Business Development Intern @ Gametize
Jonathan Goh is a final year Psychology undergraduate at University College London in United Kingdom, London. His research interests lie in mindfulness, decision-making, and applied psychology.

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