Obedience to Authority Milgram’s obedience to authority experiment countered the participant’s moral beliefs against the demands of authority. For this study, Milgram took out a newspaper ad that offered $4.50 for one hour of work, at Yale University, for a psychology experiment that sought to investigate memory and learning. Participants were told that the study would look at the relationship of punishment in learning, and that one person would be the teacher, and the other would be the learner (a confederate), and that these roles would be determined by a random drawing. The learner was then strapped into a chair, and electrodes are attached to their arm. It was explained to both the teacher and the learner that the electrodes were attached to an electric shock generator, and that shocks would serve as punishment for incorrect answers. The experimenter then states that the shocks will be painful, but that they will not cause any permanent tissue damage, while in reality no shocks would actually be received. The teacher and learner are then divided into separate rooms.
The experimenter shows the teacher the shock generator, which has 30 switches, with a voltage ranging from 15-450 volts, and are labeled from “slight shock” to “danger: severe shock,” and the last switch labeled “XXX.” The teacher is told that it is their job to teach the learner a simple paired associate task, and that they must punish the learner for incorrect answers, by increasing the shock 15 volts each time. The teacher was then given a 15 volt shock to show that the generator was actually working. When the experiment begins, the learner found the task to be difficult and made various mistakes, which resulted in increasing intensity of the shocks. When the machine reached 75, 90, and 105 volts, the teacher could hear the learner grunting through the wall, and at 120 volts the learner claimed that the shocks were getting painful, and at 150 volts he screamed, “get me out of here! I refuse to go on.” When the teacher questioned progressing, the experimenter said things such as, “you can’t stop now,” or “the experiment depends on your continuing compliance.” As the shock voltage increased the learner cried out, “I can’t stand the pain,” at 300 volts the learner began to pound on the wall and demanded to be let out. When the machine reached 330 volts there was no longer any noise coming from the learner. The experimenter then told the teacher that his lack of response was to be considered as an incorrect answer, and that shocks were to still be administered. The experiment concludes when the highest shock level is reached. Milgram found that 65% of participants would render shock levels of 450 volts, and that these were everyday normal people. In the post-experiment interview, Milgram asked the participants to rate how painful they thought the shocks were, the typical answer was extremely painful. Most of the subjects obeyed the experimenter, however the subjects did show obvious signs of an internal struggle, and demonstrated reactions such as nervous laughter, trembling, and groaning. These interviews confirmed that everyday normal people can cause pain and suffering to another person, under the right set of circumstances. Milgram also found the tendency of the teacher to devalue the learner, by saying such phrases as, “he is so dumb he deserves to get shocked,” which helped to interally justify the teachers behavior of continuing to administer the shocks. This experiment by Milgram has given a tremendous amount of insight into human behavior and obedience.
Stanley Milgram (2004) Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (with a preface written for this edition by Jerome Bruner). NY: Harper Perennial Classic [first published in 1974, and reissued in 1983]. This is Milgram’s most complete account of his...
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