Probing the Depths of Human Obedience
Stanley Milgram, an American social psychologist, conducted his renowned experiments at Yale University in the early 1960s. He informed the participants that they would investigate the impact of punishment on learning. However, the true objective was to study obedience to authority. Roughly 780 individuals, aged between 20 and 50 and from diverse job backgrounds, took part in the studies, with Milgram releasing his findings in 1963.
Milgram experiment advertisement in the New Haven Register, 1961
Participants were led to believe that they would be randomly designated either the role of “teacher” or “learner,” with teachers administering electric shocks to a learner in a separate room for every incorrect answer. Contrary to what was conveyed, the role allocation was rigged—all volunteers were assigned the teacher role while actors played the learners.
The volunteers were then briefed about the electroshock “punishment” mechanism, entailing 30 shock levels ranging from 15 to 450 volts. To comprehend the supposed punishment for learners, each teacher experienced a 45-volt shock. Following this, they presented a series of questions to the learner, escalating the shock intensity with every wrong answer.
Seated unseen, the actor playing the learner had pre-recorded reactions to the fake shocks, varying from mild grunts to screaming, pleading, mentioning a heart condition, and ultimately going silent.
Guided by a script, the experimenter, embodying an authority figure, urged the teachers to continue with the shocks despite the learner’s reactions, emphasizing the necessity to proceed with the experiment.
Stanley Milgram, the Yale University Archive
Milgram was deeply influenced by his Jewish background and the recent Holocaust when he studied authority. He thought Americans, with their strong sense of individualism, would be less likely to obey harmful orders than Germans. However, his experiments revealed darker results than he anticipated.
Contrary to Milgram and his students’ assumption that only 1–3% of participants would give the highest shock, 65% of participants did. Moreover, nearly 80% of those who gave shocks past the 150-volt scream threshold proceeded to the 450-volt maximum.
One of the participants of the Milgram Experiment, the Yale University Archive
Milgram introduced several variations in the experiment’s design. In one iteration, teachers had the autonomy to choose the voltage levels, resulting in only about 2.5% of them opting for the maximum level, showing hesitation unless directed by an authority.
In a different setup, among three teachers, two were instructed to object to the shock administration, making the volunteer teachers less obedient. A decline in obedience was also observed in a scenario where teachers had visual contact with the learner and interacted with him.
The Milgram experiment sparked a lot of debate. Even though the shocks weren’t real, many find the study unethical today because it lacked clear information, consent, and proper follow-up for the distressed participants. Yet, when others tried to validate Milgram’s findings through more ethical methods, they often found similar results.
In the early 1960s, American psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted experiments at Yale University under the guise of studying punishment’s effect on learning. The real aim was to explore obedience to authority. Participants, believing they were randomly chosen as “teachers,” administered increasing electric shocks to “learners” (actors) for wrong answers. Guided by an authority figure, 65% of participants went to the maximum shock level, contradicting Milgram’s assumption of only 1-3%. The experiment’s controversial nature has been criticized for its ethical shortcomings. Yet, replications often mirror Milgram’s outcomes.
Words of wisdom
“It is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.” —Stanley Milgram
“The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.” —Banksy
“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.” —Sigmund Freud
“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.” —John Stuart Mill