Stanley Milgram, a famous psychologist at Yale University, conducted experiments on obedience in the 1960’s. Milgram was interested to understand the excuses the Nazi’s gave at the Nuremberg trials. When asked why they committed such horrendous crimes against humanity, many claimed to be “just following orders.” Milgram was curious to know if there was something inherent in the German psyche that made them very obedient or if we all would behave the same way given the pressure to obey authority.
In order to test his theory, Milgram sent out an advertisement for male participants to take part in a learning experiment at Yale. He was deceitful about the true purpose of the experiment so that their behaviour would not be affected. He had 40 participants, aged between 20 and 50.
The participants were then paired together. In each pair, however, there was a confederate, someone working for Milgram but pretending to be a participant. Each person in the pair was supposedly assigned either a “teacher” or “student” role. The draw was rigged, however, whereby the confederate was always the student and the real participant was always the teacher. The student and teacher were then placed in separate rooms. The student had electrodes attached to his arms. The teacher and researcher, a paid actor, would go into the other room where there was an electric shock generator and a row of switches labelled from 15 volts (slight shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX).
As for the actual task, the student had to memorise word pairs. When the teacher said one of the words, the student would have to recall the pair and say it. If the student got the word wrong, he would be punished by electric shock. The more answers the student got wrong, the higher the voltage the teacher would administer. The students mainly gave incorrect answers to see how far the participants would increase the voltage. If the teacher didn’t want to administer the shock, the researcher in the room would encourage him by saying orders such as: “please continue”,” the experiment requires you to continue,” “it is absolutely essential that you continue” or “you have no other choice but to continue.” When high voltage shocks were administered, the students would scream in pain, complain of heart problems or even go ominously silent. They were only pretending as no actual shock being delivered to them, the teachers only thought they were administering the shock.
Time for the results. Sixty five percent (two-thirds) of all teachers, who were the real participants, continued to the highest level of 450 volts while all continued to 300 volts! These are extremely high shock voltages. While administering the shocks, the participants became visibly agitated and angry with the researcher. They continued nonetheless. The high levels of obedience could be due to the fact that it was Yale that was sponsoring the experiment. The researcher in the room also seemed competent and said that the shocks would be painful but not dangerous.
Milgram carried out several variants of his experiment to see if there were certain factors that affected obedience. He found that people were less obedient when the setting of the experiment was changed. For instance, when the office was in a run-down area as opposed to Yale, obedience decreased. When participants felt they were less personally responsible for the shocks, obedience increased. This was evident when the teachers were given assistants to administer the shocks, most ordered them to continue to the full 450 volts. The uniform of the researcher in the room with the teachers also made a difference. If he was wearing ordinary clothes, obedience decreased significantly as opposed to when he was wearing a white lab coat. If a “disobedient model” was present and refused to administer shocks, obedience among participants decreased. Finally the proximity of the authority figure was an important aspect. When the researcher gave instructions over the phone, obedience rates plummeted as opposed to when he was physically in the room.
Overall, Milgram’s study was very revealing of human nature. Ever since our childhood we have always been told to follow orders, listen and respect elders and abide by teachers directions. Apparently we would do these things even at the expense of causing someone extreme physical pain. People would obey the authority figure even if it meant going against one’s own conscience, values or beliefs. So could anyone become a Nazi? If it’s just about following orders, why not?
Image Credit: JT White. (April 14, 2011). To Daily Mail Readers Everywhere. Retrieved May 28, 2013, from http://livinginphilistia.blogspot.ae/2011/04/to-all-daily-mail-readers.html
McLeod, S. A. (2007). Milgram Experiment – Simply Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html