Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Obedience - The Milgram Experiment

You must have asked yourself the question, 'What would I have done?' As an ordinary German old enough to pull a lever in 1942. Stanley Milgram gave a possible, though very discomfiting, answer to that question in 1962. Milgram was a psychologist who performed one of the most important experiments in social psychology of the 20th Century. You will probably have heard of it. I bring it up now because I happened upon a student film made in 1997 at South Dakota State University which recreates one instance of the experiment. I've watched it 3 times now.

Here's how Stanley Milgram himself describes the procedure.

The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is conducted into a room, seated in a kind of miniature electric chair, his arms are strapped to prevent excessive movement, and an electrode is attached to his wrist. He is told that he will be read lists of simple word pairs, and that he will then be tested on his ability to remember the second word of a pair when he hears the first one again. whenever he makes an error, he will receive electric shocks of increasing intensity.

The real focus of the experiment is the teacher. After watching the learner being strapped into place, he is seated before an impressive shock generator. The instrument panel consists of thirty lever switches set in a horizontal line. Each switch is clearly labeled with a voltage designation ranging from 14 to 450 volts.

At 285 volts, his response can be described only as an agonized scream. Soon thereafter, he makes no sound at all.
[The learner is a actor, and receives no shocks at all.]
The results of the first series of experiments at Harvard were a 450-volt shock to everyone involved. Milgram's colleagues were proved to be not just wildly optimistic, but almost delusional in their expectations. One, a psychiatrist, predicted that most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts, when the victim makes his first explicit demand to be freed. They expected that only 4 percent would reach 300 volts, and that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board.

In fact, 60% of subjects took it up to the maximum. This figure proved to be the baseline; in Germany, for instance, it was 85%.

It is worth reading the all of Milgram's original Harper's Magazine article. He gives examples of people who refused to go on, as well as those that seemed to take pleasure in inflicting the punishments. The variations on the original experimental format are fascinating, too. In passing, he confirms Hannah Arendt's verdict on Adolph Eichmann as 'an uninspired bureaucrat' for whom the organisation of the most brutal crime in history was merely a matter of doing his job.

His conclusions are interesting, and believeable, as well, in that they confirm common sense.
The experimenter's physical presence has a marked impact on his authority -- Obedience dropped off sharply when orders were given by telephone.

Conflicting authority severely paralyzes actions -- When two experimenters of equal status, both seated at the command desk, gave incompatible orders, no shocks were delivered past the point of their disagreement.

The rebellious action of others severely undermines authority -- In one variation, three teachers (two actors and a real subject) administered a test and shocks. When the two actors disobeyed the experimenter and refused to go beyond a certain shock level, thirty-six of forty subjects joined their disobedient peers and refused as well.
I should say that this experiment is now showcased as unethical because of the psychological trauma suffered by the subjects. However,
84 percent of former participants surveyed later said they were "glad" or "very glad" to have participated and 15 percent chose neutral (92% of all former participants responding). Many later wrote expressing thanks. Milgram repeatedly received offers of assistance and requests to join his staff from former participants.


RC said...

It was fun to read this...I knew about this expirament and it is refrenced in the new documentary "Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room" and I was explaining it to my wife...but this is great info here...thanks for all the details.

--RC of

NoolaBeulah said...

The trouble with it is that it raises so many questions that I hardly know where to begin. I mean, obedience is socially vital, and it's dangerous, and the line between them is... where. It changes according to the time and circumstances. What about obedience to traditions? Can you be aware of them as traditions, and still follow them? What sort of obedience is that? Etc, etc.