Milgram's Experiment on Obedience to Authority
The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority was a string of psychological and sociological experiments. Performed by Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, the experiment analyzed the willingness of the participants in the experiment to obey authority figures. These authority figures told these study participants to behave in such a way that opposed their own conscience. Milgram would talk about his experiment in two publications: in a journal article in 1963 and then in his own 1974 book entitled Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. His experiment was started as a reply to Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s answer, at his trial, that he and his cohorts were just obeying orders regardless of what their own beliefs might have been.
The goal of Milgram’s experiment was to determine if people would follow orders if given them by an authority figure, even if said orders would violate their personal sense of morals. The experiment by Milgram involved three people: the volunteer subject, an actor who Milgram had hired (who the subject did not know was an actor), and the scientist who was administering the experiment. The volunteer subject was termed the teacher, the actor was termed the learner, and the scientist was the authority figure. Slips of paper were drawn to decide the roles for the subject and the actor, yet the slips were drawn in such a way that the subject would always be the so-called teacher in the experiment.
The experiment began by separating the subject and the actor into different rooms where they could hear one another but not see each other. The subject was presented some word pairs that he or she was tasked with teaching the learner. The subject would receive an electric shock from the electro-shock generator and was told that those kinds of shocks would be administered on the actor (the learner) if he or she failed to answer correctly. In reality, the actor would not be shocked, but the subject was unaware of this.
The experiment proceeded by the subject reading a list of word pairs and four possible corresponding answers to the actor in the next room. The actor would hit a button to indicate his reply, and if the reply was wrong, the subject was instructed to administer an electric shock to the actor. The voltage would increase by 15 volt increments for each incorrect reply indicated by the actor. If the actor answered correctly, no shock would be administered.
In the other room, the actor established a tape recording that was integrated with the electro-shock generator. For every shock level, the tape recorder played sounds of painful cries that were pre-recorded. After a certain number of increases of voltage, the actor began to bang on the shared wall from the room next door, complaining of pain and a heart condition. After several instances of increasingly agonizing cries, the actor would discontinue banging on the wall and become silent. As a response to silence, the teacher was told to administer a shock as they would for an incorrect answer.
When this point was reached, the subjects began to express discomfort with what they were doing and tried to check on the actor. Most importantly, though, many would still continue on with the experiment and with higher doses of voltage, even though they may have begun to question the experiment or even wanted to stop the experiment, some thinking they had killed the learner. At this point, the scientist (authority figure) would verbally prod the subject by first asking him or her to continue, then telling the subject the experiment had to continue, then telling the subject it was essential he or she continue, and finally that the subject had no choice but to go on. The experiment was stopped if the subject still protested after all four verbal prods, otherwise, the experiment was only stopped after the subject administered the highest 450-volt electric shock three times in succession, a fatal voltage, the subject was told.
Prior to doing the experiment, Milgram polled Yale University psychology majors as well as fellow Yale psychologists to attempt to predict the conduct of the 100 test subjects. Both demographics believed only a very small amount of volunteer subjects would actually be willing to impose the highest amount of voltage. However, the first round of Milgram’s experiments proved them all wrong as a decisive majority of 65 percent of all volunteer subjects were actually prepared to inflict the highest amount of voltage.
The feedback to this study was largely not positive at the time it was first conducted in the post-World War II era. One of the reasons cited was the fact that the volunteer subjects were forced to endure a certain degree of psychological torture. However, this experiment’s value endures up to this day because it confirms some very disturbing aspects of human behavior that are innate in many people. One, it confirmed that people (in general) want to leave decision-making up to the group and its ensuing hierarchy, especially if they feel they lack the expertise to make decisions. Two, it confirmed that people will typically not take full responsibility for their actions, choosing instead to view themselves as only instruments of the authority figure’s will.