The Milgram experiment – A study in obedience

In July 1961, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram set up an experiment that has since inspired others and become very famous. What he did was that he got participants, aka “teachers” to administer electric shocks to a group of “learners.” He told the participants that they were taking part in a scientific study of memory and learning, to see how punishment affected the ability to memorize content. What the study actually looked at was obedience.

The learner, who was in fact an actor, got strapped to an electric chair in an adjacent room. The teacher then got a list of word pairs to teach the learner, who’d respond by pressing a button. If the answer was wrong, the teacher would administer an electric shock with volts ranging from 15 to 450, labeled “slight shock” to “danger: severe shock.”

Although in another room, the teacher could still hear the screams of the learner who’d bang at the wall as the severity of the shocks increased with each wrong answer. When reaching the highest voltages, the learner went silent. Present in the room was also a chief experimenter in a white lab coat who pushed the teacher to continue with the experiment when he hesitated. The experiment was only halted after the teacher refused to continue after four verbal prods from the experimenter or after three 450-volt shocks were given.

Before the experiment, Milgram polled a group of senior-year psychology students, who believed that very few subjects would be willing to administer the high voltage shocks. They were wrong. Although many of the teachers felt uncomfortable, 65 percent administered the massive 450-volt shock, and all of them administered shocks of 300 volts. What pushed them over the edge was the experimenter, who used his authority to force the subjects to continue with the experiment.

The Milgram experiment, which began three months after the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, raised some important questions about human nature. Could it be that Eichmann and his accomplices were just following orders, and did this partly liberate them from guilt? Critics refused this idea on the grounds that Holocaust perpetrators could see the direct results of their actions. Meanwhile, the participants in the Milgram experiment were assured that the learners would not suffer permanent damage.

Variants of the experiment have been repeated since, with consistent results. Humans will do things they wouldn’t otherwise do when subjected to authority figures telling them to act contrary to their own beliefs. It’s frightening, and it’s worth thinking about.

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