The results were horrifying. Nobody suspected it could be that bad, not even close.
In 1961 a controversial experiment was carried out that made some chilling discoveries about human nature. Psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to know how it was possible that so many people co-operated to commit the atrocities of the Second World War. They couldn’t all have been sociopaths, yet thousands and thousands of people did unspeakable things to innocent people, and millions more looked the other way.
Is it really that hard to stand up to authority?
Milgram devised an experiment that went like this:
Forty subjects were recruited to participate in an experiment “on learning and memory”, having answered a newspaper ad offering a modest payment for an hour of their time. Each of the subjects were informed that they would be compensated fully as long as they showed up, regardless of their performance in the experiment.
Upon arrival, each subject met with two people. The first was a man in a white labcoat purported to be the scientist conducting the experiment. The second was another person who was supposed to be a fellow subject, but whom was actually an actor. The two subjects drew slips of paper to see who would be the “teacher” and who would be the “learner” in the experiment.
It was rigged: both slips said “teacher,” so the real subject was always given the role of teacher, though he was under the impression that he’d had an equal chance of being the learner. The actor always played the learner.
The experimenter then announced that the learning was to be reinforced by electric shocks, which would be administered by the teacher on the learner whenever the learner gave an incorrect response to a simple memory test. Each teacher was given a 45-volt sample shock to get an idea of the shocks they would be giving.
The teacher was intentionally allowed to witness the learner being strapped to a chair, with electrodes fixed to him, before being ushered into the adjacent room, where he would be stationed in front of an electric shock generator. The experimenter sat behind the teacher, holding a clipboard.
On the generator, there was a switch for each level of voltage, labeled in 15-volt increments. Whenever the learner chose the wrong answer, the teacher was to inform them of the incorrect response via intercom, and hit the first switch, administering a mild electric shock. For each wrong answer, the teacher was to advance to the next switch, giving a stronger shock than the previous time.
The switches were labeled “moderate” for the 75- to 120-volt switches, and “strong” for 135-180 volts. At 375 to 420 volts, the label was “Danger: Severe shock,” and the two highest-level switches were labeled, ominously, “XXX.”
The shock generator did not actually deliver shocks. Instead, it triggered pre-recorded vocal sounds of someone getting shocked in the next room. At the higher voltage levels, the sounds became screams, banging on the wall, complaints of heart pain and pleas to stop. At the final three levels, there was silence from the room. Silence was to be regarded as an incorrect answer, deserving of another shock.
If the teacher appealed to the experimenter that the experiment should stop, the experimenter was to say, “Please continue.” on the second protest, it would be, “The experiment requires that you continue,” then “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” and finally, “You have no other choice, you must go on.”
If the teacher were to protest a fifth time, the experiment was halted. Otherwise the experiment only halted after the teacher gave three consecutive shocks at the maximum voltage.
Milgram and his colleagues expected that only a small percentage of the participants (2 or 3 per cent) would continue long enough to administer the final, deadly shocks. Nobody expected many participants to continue after hearing screams of pain from their fellow test subject.
They were stunned. Sixty-five percent of the teachers administered all of the shocks, including the final 450-volt punishment. Only one participant refused to continue before reaching 300 Volts, though he still continued to administer shocks after the learner had said he was having heart trouble. The rest continued on to the end despite hearing the learner’s repeated pleas to be let go.
Remember, the subjects believed that they’d had a 50/50 chance of being the one in the other room.
Nearly all of the participants did become anxious and visibly uncomfortable as the experiment went on, some of them severely. But they still followed the experimenter’s urgings to continue.
Milgram summarized his findings:
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.
The experiment has been repeated many times, by Milgram and others, with similar results. In subsequent trials, it was discovered that the teacher’s distance from the authority figure and the victim affected the level of obedience, and that the personal appearance of the experimenter did too. Evidently the labcoat is a very powerful tool.
Another remarkable observation was that even while they continued to issue shocks, most of the subjects exhibited signs of sympathy for the learner. They encouraged him to think about the questions very carefully, apparently hoping that they didn’t have to give the shock. This suggests that many of the teachers didn’t feel they were in a position to decide whether the learner would receive a shock or not, even though they were the ones at the switch and they were there voluntarily.
What do you make of the results of the Milgram Experiment? What does it say about human beings?
Reflecting Milgram’s initial reasons for conducting the experiment, there are some not-so-subtle implications here regarding the motivations of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. If a stern man in a labcoat can get the majority of people to electrocute another person just by telling them to, what does that mean for foot soldiers in totalitarian regimes?
It’s interesting to consider how easily destructive behavior can arise, given all the forces that are constantly acting on any given human mind, That is, if you can avoid getting self-righteous while you’re thinking about it, and that’s not easy. Perhaps we’re not so behaviorally stable as we often think.
And that’s to say nothing of offenses of a much smaller magnitude than genocide. We are impressively quick to judge others on moral grounds, whether they’re on the most wanted list in the paper, they’ve been unfaithful to their partner, or they’re simply driving a Cadillac Escalade. The severity and relevance of our judgments vary, of course, but the mechanism is the same: we’re almost always confident we can fairly assess the moral worth (and the deserved fate) of people we don’t know, who are under circumstances we are not ourselves under, based on one instance of their behavior.
I do it all the time, and even though I’m now aware of how asinine it is, I find it extremely difficult to stop. I have to constantly remind myself that whenever I have thoughts about what other people are, or what they deserve, I am seldom even close to being qualified to make that assessment.
Do you think the subjects in the experiment were particularly cowardly or selfish people? Are you confident you would have behaved differently?
I find myself thinking yes, of course. But I wasn’t there.
Photo by Joshua Davis Photography
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