Understanding Milgram’s Experiment

Understanding the Milgram Experiment

Stanley Milgram was an American social psychologist. He was majorly famous for his controversial experiment on obedience. He conducted this experiment during his tenure as a professor at Yale University. He was born on 15 August 1933 and passed away on 20 December 1984. He was influenced by the events of the Holocaust, particularly the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Milgram’s keen interest in the Holocaust had its roots in what his biographer prof. Thoman Blass referred to “ his lifelong identification with the Jewish people”. It is also noteworthy that Milgram attended high school with Philip Zimbardo, the architect of ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’.

The experiment he conducted explored the tension between obeying authority and listening to one’s conscience. Milgram (1963) examined the justifications given by those who conducted the genocide. They justified it as their act of simple obedience to superior authority. Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” (Milgram, 1974).

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Milgram (1963) sought to explore if Germans displayed a heightened tendency for obedience to authority figures, a widely held belief used to account for the atrocities committed during World War II by the Nazis. Thus to empirically study the “belief” he experimented with a controlled lab setting with voluntary participation.

AIM: Milgram (1963) wanted to investigate the extent to which individuals would comply with instructions that could result in causing harm to another person. Stanley Milgram was intrigued by the tendency of ordinary individuals to be influenced into committing acts of violence, such as those witnessed with Germans during WWII.

Procedure: The participants for this study were recruited on the pretext that the experiment was about “learning”. Initially, participants were introduced to another person, who was working with the experimenters (Milgram). They drew straws to decide who would be the “learner” or “teacher,” but this choice was predetermined, with the confederate always being the learner. An actor, (not Milgram), played the role of the “experimenter” in a lab coat. The experiment took place in two rooms at the Yale Interaction Laboratory—one for the learner with an electric chair and another for the teacher and experimenter with a shock generator.

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The “learner” (referred to as Mr. Wallace) was seated and had electrodes attached. After memorizing word pairs, the “teacher” tested him by asking for the partner of a given word from a list of options. The teacher was instructed to administer electric shocks for each incorrect response, increasing the intensity with each mistake. There were a total of 30 switches. The shock levels ranged from slight discomfort 15 volts to severe danger 300 volts to ultimately 450 volts marked as XXX.

The learner intentionally provided wrong answers, prompting the teacher to administer shocks. If the teacher hesitated, the experimenter provided prompts to ensure they continued. These prompts included four stages, each escalating in urgency. If one prompt was ignored, the next was delivered by the experimenter. There were four prompts, and if one wasn’t followed, the experimenter (Mr. Williams) would move on to the next one.

Prod 1: Please continue.
Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.
Prod 3: You must continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.

Results: The results indicated that 65% which is about two-thirds of the participants (posing as the teacher) administered the highest 450-volt electric shock when asked to obey the command while all the participants administered 300 volts. The findings suggest that regular individuals are prone to obeying commands from authority figures, even if it means harming an innocent person. This inclination towards obedience is deeply rooted in our upbringing.

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People tend to comply with instructions from figures of authority when they perceive them as morally just or legally sanctioned. This tendency to obey legitimate authority is cultivated through various life experiences, such as within the family, educational institutions, and the workplace.
Milgram remarks in his article “Perils of Obedience” (1974) The legal and philosophical discussions about obedience are significant, but they don’t fully capture how people behave in real-life situations.

“To explore this, I (Milgram) conducted a straightforward experiment at Yale University. I wanted to see how much pain an everyday person would cause to someone else just because they were told to do so by a researcher.”

I ( Milgram) confronted the participants with strong moral objections to causing harm to others, yet when faced with authoritative commands and the distressing cries of those being harmed, authority often prevailed. The striking outcome of the study was the remarkable willingness of adults to obey authority, even at the expense of causing significant harm to others. This finding is crucial and calls for urgent explanation.

References +

Milgram, S.(1973). The Perils Of Obediance. Harper’s, 247:1483. p.62

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