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Milgrams’ study of obedience and its relevance to the conduct of soldiers at war

Summary

The armed forces rely on orders being given through the chain of command and being obeyed unquestioningly. Some of the actions you, as a soldier, may be told to do could go against what you feel is the right thing to do. Would you be able to refuse? Stanley Milgram conducted research to ascertain to what extent people would follow instructions and under what circumstance.

Background

Stanley Milgram pioneered research into obedience, his motivation being the question, does our level of obedience account for the atrocities which mankind exhibits, especially during times of war? Milgram sought to understand this and devised an experiment to find out what levels of obedience occurs in an average man given the right conditions, how much harm will one person inflict on another when told to?

To establish this, an experiment was conducted at Yale University in 1961. A volunteer, one of 40, was instructed by man in authority, wearing a laboratory coat, to administer an electric shock to another presumed volunteer for every incorrect answer to a memory task. The maximum voltage that could be inflicted was a potentially fatal 450 volts. No one predicted that anyone would go that far. Of the 40 volunteers 65% did administer the maximum voltage with the average level being 368 volts. He varied the test to establish if

1) The person in authority and /or

2) His presence was the cause.

When an ordinary man gave the instructions the % of maximum voltage decreased to 20%, and when the instructions were given over the phone, albeit by the official experimenter it also reduced, to 20.5%. Of the original variation, Milgram writes, as cited in Milgram on Milgram: part 1 (obedience experiments) (2010),”He is administering shocks because of his relationship to the experimenter and not because of any pleasure he gets from his actions”

This experiment was controversial as it...
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