This articles is going to explore one of the most well known and successful psychological experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram. Milgram wrote up his experiment and findings in the Phi Delta Kappa International publication in 1974 and called his study The Dilemma of Obedience.
Below is a snapshot of the opening statement of the article; the premise was to gain greater understanding around the social act of obedience in order to somehow learn and cope with the horrific actions of the Nazi Germans in world war two.
The experiment was to involve more than a thousand participants and would be repeated at several universities, but at the beginning, the conception was simple. A person comes to a psychological laboratory and is told to carry out a series of acts that come increasingly into conflict with their conscience.
The main question is how far the participant will comply with the experimenter’s instructions before refusing to carry out the actions required of him.
Two people come to a psychology laboratory to take part in a study of memory and learning. One of them is designated as a “teacher” and the other a “learner.” The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is conducted into a room, seated in a chair, his arms strapped to prevent excessive movement, and an electrode attached to his wrist. He is told that he is to learn a list of word pairs; whenever he makes an error, he will receive electric shocks of increasing intensity.
The real focus of the experiment is the teacher. After watching the learner being strapped into place, he is taken into the main experimental room? And seated before an impressive shock generator. Its main feature is a horizontal line of 30 switches, ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts, in 15-volt increments.
There are also verbal designations which range from Slight Shock to Danger – Severe Shock. The teacher is told that he is to administer the learning test to the man in the other room. When the learner responds correctly, the teacher moves on to the next item; when the other man gives an incorrect answer, the teacher is to give him an electric shock. He is to start at the lowest shock level (15 volts) and to increase the level each time the man makes an error, going through 30 volts, 45 volts, and so on.
The “teacher” is a genuinely naive subject who has come to the laboratory to participate in experiment. The learner, or victim, is an actor who actually received no shock at all. The point of the experiment is to see how far a person will proceed in a concrete and measurable situation in which he is ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim.
At what point will the subject refuse to obey the experimenter?
Conflict arises when the man receiving the shock begins to indicate that he is experiencing discomfort. At 75 volts the “learner” grunts. Then at 120 volts he complains verbally; finally at 150 he demands to be released from the experiment. His protests continue as the shocks escalate, growing increasingly vehement and emotional. At 285 volts his response can only be described as an agonised scream.
Observers of the experiment agree that its gripping quality is somewhat obscured in print. For the subject, the situation is not a game; conflict is intense and obvious. On one hand, the manifest suffering of the learner presses him to quit. On the other, the experimenter, a legitimate authority to whom the subject feels some commitment, encourages him to continue. Each time the subject hesitates to administer shock, the experimenter orders him to continue. To extricate himself from the situation, the subject must make a clear break with authority. The aim of this investigation was to find when and how people would defy authority in the face of a clear moral imperative.
There are, of course, enormous differences between carrying out the orders of a commanding officer during times of war and carrying out the orders of an experimenter. Yet the essence of certain relationships remain, for one may ask in a general way:
How does a man behave when he is told by a legitimate authority to act against a third individual?
If anything, we may expect the experimenter’s power to be considerably less than that of the general, since he has no power to enforce his imperatives, and participation in a psychological experiment scarcely evokes the sense of urgency and dedication engendered by participation in war.
Despite these limitations, Milgram thought it worthwhile to start a careful observation of obedience even in this modest situation, in the hope that it would stimulate insights and yield general propositions applicable to a variety of circumstances. A reader’s initial reaction to the experiment may be to wonder why anyone in his right mind would administer even the first shocks. Would he not simply refuse and walk out of the laboratory? But the fact is that no one ever does. Since the subject has come to the laboratory to aid the experimenter, he is quite willing to start off with the procedure. There is nothing very extraordinary in this, particularly since the person who is to receive the shocks seems initially cooperative, if somewhat apprehensive.
What is surprising is how far ordinary individuals will go in complying with the experimenter’s instructions
Indeed, the results of the expertment are both surprising and dismaying. Despite the fact that many subjects experience stress and that many protest to the experimenter, a substantial proportion continue to the last shock on the generator.
Many subjects will obey the experimenter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seem to be, and no matter how much the victim pleads to be let out. This was seen time and again in our studies and has been observed in several universities where the experiment was repeated. It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
A commonly offered explanation is that those who shocked the victim at the most severe level were monsters, the sadistic fringe of society. But if one considers that almost two-thirds of the participants fall into the category of “obedient” subjects, and that they represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes, the argument becomes very shaky.
Since the original Milgram experiment many others have reenacted the experiment. In psychology if experiments can be replicated and the same results appear this gives additional value and validation to the original experiments theory and study design.
In the UK, Derran Brown who is a mentalist and illusionist has many popular television programs reproduced the Milgram experiment on a Channel 4 show all The Heist; you can find this episode via YouTube.
Next read a recent critical analysis of the Milgram experiment here.