Milgram’s trials stand the test of time

By Marie Rogers

It has been just over 50 years since Stanley Milgram’s famous and iconic series of experiments on human obedience took place. The experiments were conducted during the trials of Nazis accused of war crimes following World War II. Those standing trial (and members of the public who aided the Nazis) often claimed they were just being obedient and following orders.

Milgram was interested in whether German people were particularly obedient to authority figures, compared to other nationalities. In order to investigate this he designed experiments which looked at the American publics’ reaction to a conflict between personal conscience and obedience for comparison. The experiments created a huge impact when they were conducted and continue to inform us about human behaviour today.

The best known version of the experiment involved telling the participant that they were taking the role of ‘teacher’, and they would be asking questions to a ‘learner’ who was sitting in another room. Every time the learner got a question wrong, the participant had to administer an electric shock, which increased in intensity. These were administered by pressing switches on a panel, which were labelled from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX). In reality, the ‘learner’ was an actor who pretended to be receiving shocks.

The Big Red Button by Wlodi

The participants were pressured into shocking the learner by a stern experimenter in a white lab coat, who was acting as the authority figure. Prior to the experiment, forty psychiatrists were asked to predict the results. They estimated that only 3.73% of participants would continue past the 300 volt mark. To the amazement of the academic community, 65% of the participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts.

Milgram conducted a range of obedience experiments between 1961 and 1963, testing a total of 740 participants in 21 different conditions. A recent study conducted a more in-depth analysis on this data to find out which factors predicted the greatest level of obedience.

Small variations between conditions produced striking differences in the level of obedience observed. For example, if the participant had talked to the actor playing the ‘learner’ prior to the experiment, they were less likely to follow the orders. Furthermore, greater distance between the participant and the experimenter was associated with lesser obedience.

This further analysis shows us that the Milgram experiments have more to teach us about obedience and authority than the simple results usually discussed. The findings may be useful in helping us to ‘break the spell’ of commands issued by an authority which go against our morals. One way to do this is by empathising with the people who may be negatively affected by the action.



Image: The Big Red Button by Wlodi under Creative Commons License