The Milgram Experiment And The Perils Of Obedience

Do we know how to recognize when our obedience to authority is the result of a conscious choice or manipulation?

In the 1960s, the American psychologist Stanley Milgram tried to answer this question with a controversial experiment.

The Milgram experiment is a social psychology experiment conducted for the first time in 1961 by the psychologist from whom it takes its name. The aim of the experiment was to study the behavior of individuals who receive orders that conflict with their values.

After the initial controversy and the uproar caused by the experiment, other researchers proposed it again in different ways, but without changing its substance. The last time was in 2011.

Unfortunately, the outcome of subsequent versions did not differ from that of the original experiment. This is why the results of the Milgram experiment must concern us today as in 1961.

Milgram Experiment — The Preparation

The research scientist (V) orders the subject (L — Teacher) to punish another subject (S — Student) with electric shocks, who is actually an actor and accomplice — Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The sample included men between the ages of 20 and 50 from various social backgrounds. As a reward, they were asked to collaborate on a scientific experiment on memory and the effects of learning.

In the first part of the test the experimenter, with an accomplice collaborator, assigns the roles of “student” and “teacher” through a rigged draw. The unsuspecting subject is in fact always drawn as a teacher, while the accomplice is a student.

The scientist then separates the two subjects and leads them to two different rooms. He then has the teacher stand in front of the control panel of an electric power generator. The generator has 30 toggle switches associated with increasing electrical voltage levels — from mild to potentially deadly.

The scientist makes the teacher try the shock of the third level (45 V) so that he can understand the pain associated with this discharge and convince himself that it is all true.

Milgram experiment — The Execution

Screenshot of the movie taken by the author

The scientist asks the unsuspecting teacher to ask a series of questions to the student. The scientist then orders the teacher to administer an electric shock to the student every time the student gives a wrong answer… The teacher will have to increase the intensity of the shock after each student’s wrong answer.

The student is tied to some sort of electric chair connected to the power generator in the next room. He has to answer questions and pretend to feel pain as the intensity of the shocks progresses (which he doesn’t actually get). The student actor must then shout and beg the teacher to stop until the 330 V discharge is reached. Once the 330 V discharge is reached, the student will no longer make any moans and will pretend to have fainted…

During the experiment, the researcher (“ authority figure “) urges the teacher to continue to administer increasing electric shocks to each student’s wrong response. The researcher measures each subject’s level of obedience by the number of the last switch pressed before rebelling and refusing to administer further shocks.

Only at the end of the experiment, the researcher informs the subjects that the victim has not suffered any kind of shock.

Manipulation and obedience to authority — The results of the experiment

The results of the experiment went against the expectations of Milgram himself and aroused bewilderment in the scientific world and in the society of the time.

Many of the subjects enrolled, while showing signs of tension and unease, obeyed the researcher without contradicting him. Numerous subjects administered escalating electric shocks, even as the student screamed in pain and begged them to stop. These people reported that they only followed orders and did not feel responsible for their actions.

Milgram then showed how an authority figure, who at a given time and context is considered legitimate, can lead different individuals to a level of obedience that leads them to ignore their own ethics. Faced with this type of authority, subjects no longer feel free to decide independently and consider themselves simple executors.

Obedience is something we’ve been taught to

We’ve been taught to obey from an early age to such an extent that some of us may come to think that our values ​​are less important than respecting established rules and conventions.

Many of the subjects enrolled for the experiment confirmed that they do not feel morally responsible for their actions, as executors of others’ orders.

This “ state of de-responsibility “ seems to be triggered by three factors in particular:

  • presence of an authority perceived as legitimate.
  • adherence to a system of shared and consolidated rules and habits.
  • social pressure: disobeying the authoritarian figure means questioning his power, losing his approval, and the resulting advantages.

When an individual accepts the pattern of behavior proposed by an authority, he comes to redefine a destructive action and perceives it as reasonable, if not even necessary.

Obedience and deresponsibilization

« They told me to do it », « I respected the rules », « It was he who asked me », « It’s the orders, it’s not my fault … », « I was educated like this … ».

What do these sentences have in common? Perhaps the “lightheartedness” and lightness of the lack of responsibility.

Again, language reveals our deepest beliefs and how we face life’s trials. Hence also the price we are willing to pay for using our personal power under any circumstances, refusing to be at the mercy of the environment. That power that no one can take away from us if we don’t allow it.

Originally posted on Medium