The Milgram Studies: Lessons in Obedience

In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, performed a frightening series of experiments on obedience. Milgram demonstrated how a situation can overpower an individual’s conscience. His findings have been used to explain some of the great atrocities of our time: the Holocaust, the My Lai massacre, and the genocide in Rwanda. Milgram drew his male and female subjects from all walks of life, including lawyers, firefighters, and construction workers. They all agreed to accept $4.50 per hour to participate in an experiment on learning and punishment. In the experiment, they were told by a doctor in a white coat to act as “teachers” by reading a list of word associations to a “learner,” who was out of sight but could hear in the next room. If the learner got an association wrong, then the teacher was instructed to give the learner an electric shock, increasing the voltage after each incorrect answer. The first shock was labeled, “slight shock–15 volts.” The last was labeled, “danger: severe shock–450 volts.”

Of course, the real experiment was on the teachers to see how much punishment they would administer. At 180 volts, the learner, who was an actor, would cry out that he could not stand the pain; at 300 volts, he refused to participate; at 330 volts, there was silence. To Stanley Milgram’s surprise, 65 percent of the subjects pushed on to the end, 450 volts, even if they were told the learner had a mild heart condition. Many of the teachers were seriously disturbed—sweating profusely, biting their lips—but with the prodding of the white-coated experimenter, they continued in spite of their moral qualms. Milgram’s finding appalled the academic community of the 1960s, both because of his ethically questionable methods and his gruesome results. But his research clearly demonstrated how ordinary people could be induced to perform inhumane acts simply by the presence of authority. Milgram also found that the more psychological distance the subject had from the victim, the more likely they were to follow orders to the bitter end. If the teacher only read the questions but did not administer the shocks, 90 percent finished the experiment. However, if the teacher had to touch the learner in order to administer the shocks, then only 30 percent went up to 450 volts.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. The Milgram studies have been replicated in Australia, Germany, Jordan, and other countries, all with similar results.
  2. Milgram found identical rates of obedience for men and women
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