During the World War 2, Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals and other enemies of the state were slaughtered by the Nazis.
The war criminals of the World War 2 later revealed in the trials following the war that they were merely following orders and could not be held accountable for their actions. Their defense was based on obedience.
Any rational mind obviously refuses to believe such absurd justification of the horrendous actions that occurred during the holocaust.
Stanley Milgram, a psychology professor at Yale University, then conducted an experiment to find if these justifications of the war criminals in fact logical.
Were Nazis evil and cold-hearted, or was this a phenomenon that could happen to anyone in certain circumstances? This was the question attempted to be answered by Stanley Milgram.
Stanley Milgram Experiment
In one line, Milgram wanted to investigate the effectiveness of power of authority and obedience.
In 1963, Milgram put up a newspaper advertisement for male participants to take part in a study of learning at Yale University. He handpicked 40 male participants aged between 20 and 50, whose jobs ranged from skilled to unskilled professional.
Each participant was paired with another person, and they drew out lots to determine one of them to be teacher and other to be a learner.
The draws, however, were rigged so that only the participants would be teachers, the learners were one of the Milgram’s confederates pretending to be a participant.
The teacher and the learner were then taken to two different rooms right next to each other. Electrodes were attached to the learner’s arms in front of the teacher (participant).
The researcher took the teacher to the other room which contained an electric shock generator with a row of switches that ranged from 15 to 450 volts. (15V was marked slight shock whereas 300V and above was marked the danger line, and the 450V was only marked XXX)
The shock generator was not real, which of course wasn’t made aware of the participant (teacher).
Aim of the Experiment
Milgram wanted to find out how far would people go to obeying the instruction from the authority when it directly involved harming someone else.
The researcher dressed in the grey lab coat here was the authority figure (not Milgram – actors), who was present in the room alongside the Teacher (participant).
Milgram was also interested in if an ordinary person could have committed the similar atrocities as the Germans did in the World War 2.
The teacher would then ask the questions provided by the experimenter to the learner in the other room. The teacher was to deliver a shock to the learner for every wrong answer, starting from the lowest – 15V.
The learner (actor) deliberately wrong answers for the purpose of the experiment. Since the shock generator was phony, the learner would simply scream and moan from the other room.
The learners were to scream louder and bang on the walls after reaching the 300V level, after which the learner would go completely silent refusing to speak.
The experimenter was provided with four pre-scripted commands to prod the teacher when the teacher refused to give anymore electric shock.
Prod 1: Please Continue.
Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.
Shockingly, the results determined that every single one of the participants obeyed to provide shock up to the level of 300V, and 65% of them even continued on to the maximum of 450 volts.
Conclusion Obedience to Authority – Validation of Milgram’s Assumption
Before the Milgram Experiment, experts assumed that people would have to be pathological or a psychopath in order to give shocks to other people, therefore they had guessed that about 1 – 3% of subjects would not give shocks.
Milgram’s experiments, in a way, produced horrifying results showing that 65% people didn’t stop giving shocks.
It’s now believed that one of the reasons why obedience to authority is so powerful is because it is the innate behavior of humans to obey what they are told. It is how we are brought up.
Milgram’s Agency Theory
Following the experiment, Milgram explained two states of behavior that makes people take actions in social situations.
The autonomous state – people direct their own actions and take responsibility.
The agentic state – people follow orders or let other people determine their actions. This causes them to pass off responsibility, or in other words, merely act as a vessel for someone else’s will.
Agency theory suggests that people follow actions when they believe that the authority is qualified enough to pass on orders. Also, it is important for the followers to know that the authoritative figure (order giver) will take responsibility for their actions.
For instance, In Milgram’s Shock Experiment, participants continued on when the experimenter told them that they would not be held accountable for their actions. In contrast, many participants refused to continue with the experiment when they were told they had to be responsible for their own actions.
The Milgram studies were conducted in laboratory settings, so it does raise a question of whether or not it would be effective in the real-life situations. Real-life situations are far more complicated than instructing someone to give electric shocks to people.
Experts argue that experiment of such stature wouldn’t be allowed in the modern world of today, due to ethical considerations.
Experts also believe that participants were misled and it’s argued that the participants weren’t properly debriefed before or even after the experiment, which might have caused potential harm to the participants.
Psychologist Gina Perry has described Stanley Milgram as a misunderstood genius. In an article for the discover magazine, Perry reported that
“The slavish obedience to authority we have come to associate with Milgram’s experiments comes to sound much more like bullying and coercion when you listen to these recordings.”
While researching through the Yale archives regarding the experiment, she discovered that there were numerous variations of the experiment. But only one particular Shock Experiment was brought to light.
This obviously does not tell the whole story. As Perry discovered, there were variations (other than the consistently retold Shock Experiment) where far fewer people were willing to obey the instructors’ orders.
In fact, there were even some versions of the experiment, where not a single participant obeyed.
Tracking down the Participants
Gina Perry went as far as to track down some of the participants who took part in the famous “Shock Experiment”.
Upon questioning, she found out that there hadn’t been any true briefing. While Milgram claimed to have briefed the participants about the whole study being fake, it had not been the case.
The participants were merely calmed down before sending their way. Some participants didn’t know the truth until months or even years.
“Learners” were Faking
Upon questioning the original participants, it was revealed that some of the participants had deduced that the electric shocks were fake and the “learner” was only pretending.
This definitely sheds a new light on the study and invalidate the original findings up to an extent.
A word from Psychestudy
Human beings are not mindless machines who follow orders to an extent given the orders, which may seem the case upon studying one-sided report of the Milgram Shock Experiment.
While Milgram’s study doesn’t hold all the answers to what extent will people obey, in other words – obedience to authority, it has acted as a foundation for other researchers to explore the similar questions.
Some of those questions are
“What makes people follow orders?”
Or more importantly, what makes them question authority?