"The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: Often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act." –Stanley Milgram, 1974. The Milgram experiment on obedience was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale university psychologist Stanley Milgram. This experiment showed some interesting results where the subjects obeyed the authority out of fear or out of desire to show that they are co-operative against their own conscience and desire. Milgram discussed his experimental results in a book written by him in 1974 called the “Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View”
During the trial, Criminal Adolph Eichmann of World War II said in his defense that he simply followed the instructions when he ordered the killing of millions of Jews. This statement from Eichmann caught Milgram’s interest and inspired him to conduct a series of psychological tests on obedience.
Some men were recruited for the experiment from a paper ad offering to pay them $4.50 an hour. Milgram developed a shock generator that had 30 switches and shock levels starting from 30 volts to 450 volts with an increment of 15 volts. The switches were labeled from Slight shock to Danger – severe.
The participants were labeled teachers and there were actors who became the learners.Both were moved to different rooms. The teacher was asked to test the learner with questions and for each wrong answer; the learner receives shock treatment from the teacher. The teacher moves to the next question after a right answer. The teacher has to start with the lowest level of shock i.e. 30 volts and increase the level (15 volts) each time the learner makes a mistake going through 30 volts, 45 volts, 60 volts and so on. The learner is an actor who just pretends to receive electric shock. The teacher does not know that the learner is pretending on receiving an electric shock. The teacher assumes that the learner is receiving shock treatment.
The main focus in this experiment is the teacher. The main point of focus is to see how far a person can proceed in a concrete situation in which he is ordered to induce increasing pain on a protesting victim. At what point the teachers will refuse to obey the experimenter?
The man receiving shock starts to show discomfort when he receives 75 volts, at 125 volts he complains verbally and screams at 150 volts he wants to be released and as it goes higher, nothing but his scream is heard. If the learner keeps silent, that is also treated as a wrong answer and given the shock treatment. At 300 volts, the learners pleaded to be released with screams.
At this point, most participants asked the experimenter if they could stop. But the experimenter issued a series of commands such as,
1. "Please continue."
2. "The experiment requires that you continue."
3. "It is absolutely essential that you continue."
4. "You have no other choice."
The level of shock the participant was willing to deliver on the learner was used as a measure of obedience. Milgram asked his university students on what could be the maximum percentage willing to deliver the maximum shock and most of them guessed it would be 3%. But in reality, it was 65% who gave the maximum shock. Of the 40 participants, 26 delivered maximum shocks to their learners while 14 stopped before reaching the maximum levels. Many participants became extremely agitated and angry with the experimenter but still followed the orders to the end.
Milgram said “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority"
Milgram’s experiment is a classic in psychology that demonstrates the dangers of obedience. This experiment suggests that the situation plays a stronger role than personality factors in determining obedience. But other psychologists argue that obedience depends on both internal and external factors such as the overall temperament of the person and his personal beliefs.