Would you shock a complete stranger to a painful death if someone commanded you to?
Are all humans just slaves to authority?
Will humans refrain from participating in evil even if they are pressured into it by an authority figure?
Who was Stanley Milgram?
Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, set out to find the answer to this very important question with a series of experiments conducted around the world. The context behind him coming up with this question and subsequently, a shocking experiment to prove his hypothesis, is interesting in itself. Born to a Jewish family who migrated to the States during the perils of World War I, Milgram was horrified at the treatment that the Jews received at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, even more so when Adolf Eichmann, one of the leading Nazi officers claimed during his trial that he was simply following the orders given to him by the higher authorities.
In an atmosphere where the world believed that these heinous crimes and inhuman acts of aggression were a part of the German blood, Stanley Milgram resolved to test whether Eichmann was actually just following orders or could the Germans really be regarded as aggressive and violent. His experiment, while disturbing in its design, lead to a breakthrough in social psychology.
40 males between ages 20-50 were recruited via newspaper ads and mail from New Haven and whereabouts to participate in a ‘learning study’ and were paid $4.50 for their contribution to the study. Occupational diversity made the sample a perfect one since now the behavior could be assessed over a range of jobs, to see if the nature of the job had any effect on the participant’s behavior.
The real purpose of the experiment was concealed in order to elicit real reactions from the participants. Participants were paired up with a confederate (someone who pretends to be a participant but is actually a part of the experimenter’s team, an accomplice) and told to select a chit out of a hat to determine who would be the teacher and the learner in this scenario since the experiment would be about ‘memory and whether it is affected by punishment‘. The system was, however, rigged to make sure that the confederate was always the learner. The confederate was a genial, 40-year-old accountant who confided in the actual participant that he had a ‘heart problem’.
The participant and confederate were taken into separate rooms so that while the participant could hear the confederate, he could not see him. The real participant was introduced to the shock generator, given a list of questions that he would be asking the Confederate and given a test shock of 45V to make him completely trust the authenticity of the generator. In reality, the shock generator machine did not administer actual electric shocks and the test shock had its source at a 45V battery.
The shock generator was a sinister-looking machine with 30 lever switches each marked with a voltage from 15V to 450V, with an increment of 15V when going from one lever switch to another. On switching the generator on, it made a whirring noise and a red light switched on, adding to the reality. The switches were divided into four groups, marked with the following written signals which told the participant about the pain intensity of the shock – slight, moderate, strong, very strong, intense, extreme Intensity, and danger: severe shock. Last two switches were marked with Xs to indicate possible death. The confederate was strapped into a fake electric chair in the other room and a show was made of convincing the participant that he would truly be giving someone an electric shock that would be painful but not fatal at low voltages.
The participant was instructed to administer a shock every time the confederate got an answer wrong by an experimenter who stood in one corner, looking stern. He too was an accomplice and used a series of verbal cues with the mildest being ‘please continue’ and the strongest being ‘you have no other choice. You must go on.’
The results were truly disturbing.
All of the participants administered shocks up to 300V, even when they could clearly hear the confederate screaming in pain, demanding release from the experiment.
65% of the participants went full up to the 450V limit, even though they knew that giving the last shock could potentially kill the confederate. The confederate not only screamed in pain but he also demanded to be let out of the room, cried, pounded on the wall and in some cases even went unresponsive. Still, the real participants continued to shock the learner until the final voltage was reached. Only 35% refused to go all the way to the end.
14 participants started laughing nervously and were quick to tell the experimenter that they weren’t sadistic and did not enjoy shocking the learner. Many participants experienced extreme sweating, fits of laughter, shivering, fidgeting etc.
In conclusion, Milgram successfully proved how completely normal, mentally sane people were quick to obey the authority of an experimenter when commanded to do so and thought they were hurting the learner but still chose to go on.
What’s truly disturbing is the implication that this research has and how it explains genocide and other devastating events throughout history – how humans can hurt other humans without a second thought, when an authoritative figure commands them to do so.
Stay tuned for the next part in which we’ll see another truly disturbing psychological event and discuss the problem of evil, namely – are all humans inherently evil?