How Far Would You Go.
The Milgram Experiment is a very famous experiment carried out in the 1960s by Stanley Milgram a Psychologist from Yale University. He commenced his experiments in 1961 and concluded them in 1963.
His experiments attempted to define conflict between personal conscious and obedience to authority. It has also been made into a movie titled “Experimenter”.
How Did They Do It.
In preparation for the experiment an advertisement was placed in a local newspaper for volunteers for a research project at Yale University.
After the participants were chosen, they were told that they would be divided into two groups to be either a “Learner” or a “Teacher”. Those who were a “Learner” were colleagues of Milgram and those who were designated as “teacher” where unaware of the fact that the “Learners” were actually colleagues of Milgram.
The “Learner” was taken into a separate room and had electrodes attached to his body and was strapped to a chair. The Teacher (Volunteer) and a research assistant (colleague of Milgram) then went into another room where there was an electric shock generator set up. It had dials ranging from 15 volts (labelled slight shock) to 375 Volts (Danger Severe Shock and 450 Volts (XXX).
Aim of The Experiment
The aim of the experiment was to see how far an individual would go by being influenced by another person.
The group of volunteers were all male between the ages of 20 and 50. Their education and skill sets ranged from unskilled to professionals.
The “Learner” was given a set of world pairs which they were to study and memorise as part of the experiment. (It must be remembered that the learner was in fact in on the experiment)
The “teacher” (Volunteer) then asked the “Learner” set questions consisting of a single word and then waited for the “Learner” to answer with the correct word answer to the word asked.
If the “Learner” answered incorrectly the “Teacher” was told with some authority to administer an electric shock. The level of volts was to be increased each time the “Learner” made an incorrect answer.
The “Learner” gave mostly incorrect answers on purpose so that the “Teacher” had to increase the level of voltage each time.
When the level of voltage grew to a certain level which was different for each individual “Teacher”, he then refused to administer the shock.
The assistant who was seated with the “Teacher” and was wearing a grey lab coat and carrying a clipboard to appear to have authority then read out 4 Prods to the” Teacher” to encourage him to continue. The Prods were
PROD 1: Please Continue.
PROD 2: The Experiment requires you to continue.
PROD 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
PROD 4: You have no other choice but to continue.
The results were 65% of participants “Teachers” (Volunteers) continued to the highest level of wattage 450 volts. All of the participants continued to the level of 300 volts which was labelled “Danger Severe Shock”.
Variants To The Experiment
Milgram carried out 18 variations of the study.
All he did was alter the situation to see how the level of obedience changed.
In the first study the assistant or experimenter (The person with the “Teacher”) wore a grey lab coat and carried a clipboard. His appearance carried an air of authority.
In one of the subsequent experiments the assistant was called away at the beginning of the experiment under the guise of an urgent phone call. He was replaced by another associate of Milgram who was dressed in civilian clothes and did not carry a clipboard. In this case the level of obedience dropped dramatically to just 20%.
Change of location.
On another occasion the experiment was kept the same but moved from the impressive rooms of Yale University to a rundown office block.
There the level of obedience fell to 47.5%.
In yet another experiment everything remained the same except there were two assistants to the “Teacher”. The “Teacher” (Volunteer-participant) could instruct the second assistant to operate the buttons.
In that scenario 92.5% of the participants shocked to the maximum voltage of 450 volts, thus indicating that when there is less personal responsibility, obedience increases.
In yet another variance the “teacher” had to force the hand of the “learner” onto a shock plate when they refused to participate. This was only after the level of voltage reached 150 volts.
The participant was no longer protected from seeing the consequences of their actions.
In another variation 3 people were to take part in the experiment. Unbeknownst to the volunteer the other two participants in the room were colleagues of Milgram. One of the colleagues stopped the experiment at 150 volts and the other stopped at 210 volts.
When the other two participants (colleagues of Milgram) stopped the experiment it reduced the level of obedience in the real participants to just 10%.
Another experiment was carried out with the “Teacher” instructing the “Learner” by telephone. In this case many “Learners” cheated by not giving shocks at all or by giving shocks that were far less that the required level.
The startling results of these experiments is that most people will follow orders given by an authority figure even to the level of killing an innocent person.
Obedience to authority is instilled in us from the way many of us were brought up. Given the scenario where the authority figure holds some legal or moral standing like family, workplace or leaning institute, people will carry out orders even against their own best judgement.
Milgram summed up in the article “The Perils of Obedience” (Milgram 1974), writing:
‘The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations.
I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist.
Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.
The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.’
Whilst comprehensive, the results may not be seen as a true representation of society, given that the experiments were carried out in a controlled setting and that the participants were 100% male and had a volunteer mindset. Also, the geographic location where the participants were drawn from were the same. That said the same series of experiments have been carried out in different cultures and there were much the same results and in fact some cultures had a higher degree of obedience.
In 2018 English Mentalist- Illusionist Derren Brown released a documentary directly relating to Milgram’s finding.
It is called “The Push” and it is a fantastic presentation into the reality of social and authoritative pressure on an individual and is well worth seeing.