Milgram's Obedience Research: Studying What Humans Are Capable Of Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Milgram's Obedience Research: Studying What Humans Are Capable Of

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A hand operating the controls at a nuclear missile silo
As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are 'only doing their duty', as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.

- George Orwell, 'The Lion and the Unicorn', 1941, quoted in Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Preface

In 1960, Israeli agents captured Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann and brought him to trial before an Israeli court in 1961. People were shocked by Eichmann - not because he was a ferocious killer with a vicious personality, but because he so obviously wasn't. And yet Eichmann was guilty of mass murder. How could this be? Political philosopher Hannah Arendt observed the trial and coined the phrase 'the banality of evil'.

Three months after the trial began, an experiment was quietly undertaken at prestigious Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. Social psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) had questions about humans, obedience to authority, and the capacity to do harm to other humans. He had a theory and planned to check it out. The results surprised him (and probably cost him tenure at Harvard). The experiment has been reproduced with the same results in different times and places and has made a lot of people very angry.

Just what is this disturbing experiment, and what does it show about human behaviour?

Planning to Fool People

The adjustment of thought, the freedom to engage in cruel behavior, and the types of justification experienced by the person are essentially similar whether they occur in a psychological laboratory or the control room of an ICBM site.
- Obedience to Authority, Preface, p xii

Stanley Milgram wanted to examine the responses of people to authority figures. In particular, he wanted to see whether civilised people could be persuaded to do something that went against their consciences if an authority figure told them to. So he designed what he called an experiment, but others called a 'study'. The broad outline of the procedure was as follows:

The participants in the exercise are the Experimenter, the Teacher, and the Learner. The Experimenter, a confederate of Milgram's who is wearing a lab coat for verisimilitude, tells his two 'volunteers' that the experiment concerns the value of punishment as a learning tool. He'll give them random slips of paper to determine which of them is the Teacher (who 'teaches' and gives electrical shocks for wrong answers) and Learner (who tries to learn the word pairs and receives electrical shocks as punishment for mistakes).

The whole thing is a misdirection. The Learner is actually a confederate, who needs to be a pretty good actor because he1 is going to do a lot of complaining. The Teacher is the only person not in on the gag: he is what PT Barnum would have called 'the mark' and what psychologists, who have real academic credentials, call the 'naïve subject'. The mark... er, subject, is force-choiced into picking the Teacher role, but doesn't know that yet.

Interestingly, Milgram was running these studies in Connecticut, the home of PT Barnum, the great hoaxer himself. He even conducted some of the research in Bridgeport, where Barnum lived. There was no connection other than coincidence between Milgram and that flim-flam artist - although there was a direct connection to another, more recent hoaxer: Allen Funt's Candid Camera was almost as old as US television itself and had influenced Milgram as a teenager with its harmless scams and close observations of 'naïve subjects.' Milgram was going to put what he had learned from America's weekly entertainment to scientific use.

'...[I]n psychology it is traditional for experiments to be carried out on undergraduates,' wrote Milgram. But he was pretty sure undergraduates couldn't keep a secret. There was a danger the premise of the undertaking would leak on campus. So the good (male) citizens of New Haven and, later, Bridgeport were recruited, by means of advertising in the newspaper. Bring your coupon, volunteer your time, get paid $4.50. The fifty cents was for carfare in 1961. 40% were blue-collar workers, 40% were white-collar workers, 20% were professionals. None were psychologists: Milgram would experiment on them later.

Social psychology work was tricky, both logistically and ethically. Logistically, you needed to misdirect your subjects in order to get an honest reaction if you wanted to learn what humans would really do in a given situation. Ethically, you had to be careful not to harm your subjects - or even appear to have done so. Otherwise, your colleagues would complain that you had traumatised your unwitting volunteers.

Now that Milgram had his subjects, he and his accomplices went to work.

What Did They Do?

Mr. Rensaleer: I do have a choice. (Incredulous and indignant:) Why don't I have a choice? I came here on my own free will. I thought I could help in a research project. But if I have to hurt somebody to do that, or if I was in his place, too, I wouldn't stay there. I can't continue. I'm very sorry. I think I've gone too far already, probably.
- Obedience to Authority, p50

After tricking the 'naïve subject' into accepting the role of Teacher2, the Experimenter explains about the process of the 'experiment'. The Teacher is supposed to read out some word pairs, such as 'blue box, nice day, wild duck', etc. Then the Teacher reads out the first word in a pair followed by four multiple-choice answers. If the Learner picks the right answer, the Teacher moves on. If the Learner gives the wrong answer, the Teacher reads the right answer and administers an electric shock by tripping a switch. As the 'experiment' proceeds, the electric shocks get more severe - or at least, that's what the Teacher is told.

In reality, the Learner - described as a 'likeable' 47-year-old Irish-American accountant - sat in the next room and pretended to be shocked. As the voltages on the bogus equipment increased, his protests became more audible. He demanded that they stop, claimed they were hurting him, and yelled that he had a heart condition. In response to the Teacher's anxious inquiries, the Experimenter would reply that the electrical shocks 'did no permanent tissue damage', and that it was important to go on for Science.

The 'experiment' continued in each instance until one of two things happened: the Teacher refused to go on, in spite of Experimenter prodding, or the Teacher went on until the end, allegedly administering shocks of 450 volts - well into the zone marked Danger on the official-looking control panel (which was not hooked up to any such thing). Then the Teacher was let in on the secret, which was that the Learner had not been harmed, and was debriefed by the Experimenter. Everyone parted amicably.

Predicting the Results

In the minds of some critics, there is an image of man that simply does not admit of the type of behavior observed in the experiment.
- Obedience to Authority, p169

It is at this point that we should mention the research on the psychologists. Anticipating what his colleagues would say, Dr Milgram invited a number of them to a lecture on the subject of the obedience study. 'Too often,' he wrote later, 'the value of a work in social science is played down by asserting the self-evident character of the findings. But rarely do we have clear information on exactly how people expect behavior to unfold in a given set of circumstances.' So he explained his procedure to an audience made up of psychiatrists, university students, and the general public. Then, without telling them the results, he passed out questionnaires. Could they guess the results?

All of the respondents indicated that they believed that only a very low percentage of subjects would actually go very far, beyond 150 volts. When asked if they themselves would go along with the Experimenter, 100% said, not on your life. All 110 people questioned indicated that they would break the proceedings off early.

So they were really surprised to find out that 65% of Milgram's subjects agreed to go all the way in this unethical procedure. Stanley Milgram was surprised, too.


The dilemma posed by the conflict between conscience and authority inheres in the very nature of society and would be with us even if Nazi Germany had never existed.
- Obedience to Authority, p179

Milgram wasn't saying that these people were vicious or evil. His idea was that social pressures were at work that made it possible for otherwise kind people to do unkind things. It had to do with obedience to authority. Milgram and his coworkers varied their experimental conditions considerably in order to test this hypothesis about authority.

  • They changed the venue from the Yale campus (high-status) to a makeshift facility over a shop in Bridgeport. This resulted in a slight decrease in cooperation on the part of the subjects, but not much.
  • They made the Teacher and the Learner sit in the same room. Seeing the Learner suffer lowered the willingness of the Teacher to cooperate.
  • They tried switching confederates so that the Experimenter seemed gentler and nicer than the Learner. This had no effect: authority was authority.
  • They sent the Experimenter out of the room and had him phone in the instructions. The subjects 'cheated' by administering lower shocks.
  • They put two Experimenters in the room. The Experimenters argued with each other. The experiment came to a standstill when the subject didn't know whom to obey.
  • They put two other Teachers (actually confederates) in the room with the Teacher. The fake Teachers revolted mid-experiment, but stayed in the room. The subjects revolted, too, because they had moral support.

Milgram drew conclusions: modern society was possible because of hierarchy. Humans followed recognised authority, no matter how that authority was chosen. The willingness to enter what Milgram called 'the agentic state' was part of an unspoken social contract. If societies were to guard against the negative effects of misuse of authority, people needed to know this. The more counter-intuitive the results of the Milgram Experiment, the more important it was to know about them.

I am forever astonished that when lecturing on the obedience experiments in colleges across the country, I faced young men who were aghast at the behavior of experimental subjects and proclaimed they would never behave in such a way, but who, in a matter of months, were brought into the military and performed without compunction actions that made shocking the victim seem pallid.
- Obedience to Authority, p180

For Further Enlightenment would be a mistake to believe that any single temperamental quality is associated with disobedience, or to make the simple-minded statement that kindly and good persons disobey while those who are cruel do not. ... For the social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often, it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.
- Obedience to Authority, p205, Appendix II: Patterns Among Individuals

Michael Almereyda, Experimenter, 2015 film starring Peter Sarsgaard.

Stanley Milgram, The Milgram Experiment, a 1962 documentary by the researchers.

Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Harper & Row, 1974.

Slater, Antley, et al, 'A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments', PLoS One, 2006, 1(1): e39.

1Everybody involved in the early experiments was male. Later, the researchers ran the experiment with women. The results were the same.2By having the subject choose first from two slips of paper. Both of them had 'Teacher' written on them.

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