Over 50 years after the fact, flaws and misrepresentations of the Milgram Shock Experiment during the 1960s come to light. Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a study at Yale University that was supposed to support the idea that normal people would go against their nature and do harm to a complete stranger if a person in authority ordered them to do so. Inspiration for the study came from Milgram’s time as a research assistant to Solomon Asch, who studied conformity in social groups.
Milgram reported an astonishing 65% of subjects blindly obeyed orders to administer increasing electrical shocks to a subject they could not see but heard as the shocks became more intense. Milgram told volunteers they were taking part in a memory and learning study. In fact, it was an experiment on just how far afield the average person would go when given directions by someone they perceived as “in charge” of them. These instructions were designed to be contrary to what the volunteer actually wanted to do, or thought was right given the parameters of the experiment.
Milgram’s study has been referenced in the decades since to show just how willing people in general would be to put aside their own morals and misgivings and simply do as they were told. The study and subsequent reports were done during the post-WWII mindset, and the televised trial of Nazi Adolph Eichmann was at the forefront of American thought as Milgram conducted his experiment.
Milgram posited the notion that Eichmann and other Nazi officials fell into an “agentic state” state when ordered to commit atrocities during the war. Subordinates of Hitler and Stalin were lulled into a “profound slumber” and therefore unable to refuse to obey their orders, no matter how heinous. Milgram correlations between the horror of Nazi Germany and his findings are expanded upon in his book Obedience to Authority 12 years later.
In this case, however, the numbers are not quite what they seem. Milgram’s experiment was not one but 24 different variations, and consisted of just 40 subjects. DiscoverMagazine.com’s Gina Perry discusses this and other misrepresentations in her book Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Psychology Experiments (Sept 2013). Perry puts forth the idea that due to inconsistent controls in the experiment, the figures cannot be trusted.
The numbers do in fact seem to pan out, as BBC TV shows in its recreation of Milgram’s study in 2009. Nine out of 12 participants followed orders and administered shocks to complete stranger because a professor, played by an actor, told them to. Questions were asked, and doubts were apparent. Although the subjects could hear protests from the shocked individual most followed the orders they were given once the “professor” informed them, ”The experiment requires that you continue.”
The subjects did not know that they were not actually shocking anyone. Nor were they aware that the urgent, ”Let me out of here! Let me out!” they heard was recorded. Every participant showed some level of remorse or distress after administering the highest possible setting of 450 volts. But those nine participants did deliver the shocks as ordered. After completing the course of the experiment, subjects were told the truth and introduced to the person they thought they were shocking. In this final portion of BBC’s recreation, volunteers were asked why they continued. All pointed to the authority figure and his dispassionate statement that they “had to continue”, that the experiment was “required”. Subjects even went so far as to state that they felt themselves removed from liability if any harm came to the other individual, because they were only doing what they were told.
One of the three subjects who refused to continue was advised of truth behind the experiment and that most of his fellow volunteers had complied despite their misgivings. “I find that scary,” he replied.
It is disturbing to see that human beings will bow to another’s will, surrendering their own morals and ideas of right and wrong in order to please authority or avoid consequences for disobedience. Surely Homo sapiens are a finer, nobler creature than this. Milgram’s study and the 2009 recreation show that, sadly, the majority of us are not.
Written by: Brandi Tasby