Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, conducted a series of obedience experiments during the 1960’s to prove that for many people, obedience is a compelling drive overriding their own morality and sympathy. These experiments ended in shocking results.
The Milgram experiment consisted of a teacher, learner, and the experimenter. The teacher being the actual subject while the others were actors. They were told that they would be taking part in a memory and learning study. The learner is strapped into a kind of an electric chair while the teacher/subject is seated in front of a shock generator labeled with terms like “Slight Shock,” “Moderate Shock” and “Danger: Sever Shock.” The final two switches are labeled simply with a menacing “XXX.” The teacher/subject is to ask the learner a series of word pairing questions and when answered incorrectly, the learner will receive a “shock” delivered by the teacher. The learner will in fact receive no shock but this fact is hidden from the subject. The shock levels starts at 30 volts and increasing in 15-volt increments all the way up to 450 volts.
As the experiment continues and the learner starts answering incorrectly, subjects show obvious conflict and hesitation especially when the learner starts verbally protesting. Each time the subject asked the experimenter whether they should continue, the experimenter ordered a series of commands to prod the subject along. To stop this experiment, all the subject must do is make a clear break with authority.
The level of shock that the subject was willing to deliver was used as the measure of obedience. How far do you think most subjects were willing to go? I, along with most people, didn’t foresee that 65% of the subjects were willing to deliver the maximum shock. So why did so many subjects carry out a seemingly sadistic act on the instruction of an authority figure? This isn’t a question to be answered lightly and can’t be fully explained. Maybe the subjects felt the need to please the authority figure? Maybe they felt that the responsibility for hurting the learner actually fell on the experimenter because the subjects were just following orders? Or maybe all people harbor deeply aggressive instincts constantly pressing for expression. Whatever the excuse, I find the results of the experiment disheartening and worry about how I would have acted if put under those same circumstances.
* “Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to” (Milgram) * “if a person is placed in a situation in which he has complete power over another individual, whom he may punish as much as he likes, all that is sadistic and bestial in man comes to fore” (Milgram) * “They are proud of doing a good job, obeying the experimenter under difficult circumstances” (Milgram) * “subjects have precisely the opposite view of their actions – namely, they see them as originating in the motives of some other person” (Milgram)