During the 1960s, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducts a series of psychological experiments that lead to some very shocking results. These results actually prove how powerful authority is to get people to comply with extraordinary demands.
SO WHAT WAS THIS MILIGRAM EXPERIMENT
Milgram started his experiments in 1961, shortly after the trial of the World War II criminal Adolph Eichmann started. Eichmann’s defense that he was merely following instructions when he ordered the deaths of millions of Jews created interest for Milgram.
In his 1974 book “Obedience to Authority,” Milgram posed the question, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?”
HOW THE MILIGRAM EXPERIMENT WAS CONDUCTED
The participants in the most famous variation of the Milgram experiment were 40 men recruited using newspaper ads. In exchange for their participation, each person was paid $4.50. They only had to show up for the experiment to get paid and did not necessarily participate.
Milgram developed a fake electric shock generator, with shock levels starting at 30 volts and increasing in 15-volt increments all the way up to 450 volts. The many switches were labeled with terms including “slight shock,” “moderate shock” and “danger: severe shock.” The final two switches were labeled simply with a mysterious “XXX.”
Each participant took the role of a “teacher” who would then deliver a shock to the “student” whenever an incorrect answer was given by him. While the participant acting as a “teacher” believed that he was delivering real shocks to the student, the “student” was a previously chosen actor in the experiment who was simply pretending to be shocked.
As the experiment progressed, the participants would hear the student(actor) plead to be released or even complain about a heart condition. Once they reached the 300-volt level, the student would bang on the wall and demand to be released. Beyond this point, the student (actor) became completely silent and refused to answer any more questions. The experimenter then instructed the participant to treat this silence as an incorrect response and deliver a further shock.
Most participants asked the experimenter whether they should continue. The experimenter issued a series of commands to prod the participant along:
“The experiment requires that you continue.”
“It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
“You have no other choice; you must go on.”
HOW FAR DO YOU THINK MOST PARTICIPANTS WERE WILLING TO GO?
The measure of obedience was the level of shock that the participant was willing to deliver. How far do you think most participants were willing to go?
When Milgram posed this question to a group of Yale University students, it was predicted that no more than 3 out of 100 participants would deliver the maximum shock. In reality, 65 percent of the participants in Milgram’s study delivered the maximum shocks.
Of the 40 participants in the study, 26 delivered the maximum shocks while 14 stopped before reaching the highest levels. It is important to note that many of the subjects became extremely agitated, distraught, and angry at the experimenter, but they continued to follow orders all the way to the end. That is a whopping 65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e., teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.
Milgram later surveyed the participants and found that 84 percent were glad to have participated while only 1 percent regretted their involvement.
WHY DID PARTICIPANTS COMPLY TO SUCH UNREASONABLE AND UNETHICAL DEMAND IN MILGRAM EXPERIMENT
There are some situational factors that can explain such high levels of obedience:
- The physical presence of an authority figure dramatically increased compliance.
- The fact that Yale (a trusted and authoritative academic institution) sponsored the study led many participants to believe that the experiment must be safe.
- The selection of teacher and learner status seemed random.
- Participants assumed that the experimenter was a competent expert.
- The shocks were said to be painful, not dangerous.
“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become extremely compliant if exposed to authority as an influencing technique. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority,” Milgram explained in “Obedience to Authority.”
THE CONCLUSION- AUTHORITY IS A VERY POWERFUL INFLUENCING TOOL
Before the Stanley Milgram Experiment, experts thought that about 1-3 % of the subjects would not stop giving shocks. They thought that you’d have to be pathological or a psychopath to do so.
Still, 65 % never stopped giving shocks. None stopped when the learner said he had heart trouble. How could that be? We now believe that it has to do with our almost innate behavior that we should do as told, especially from an authority person.
Further Studies Determined
- Women are about the same obedient as men
- Distance to the victim affects the obedience
- Distance to the person ordering you affects the obedience
- The appearance of the authority person and his rank can increase or decrease the obedience