Milgram’s Shocking Experiment
Stanley Milgram, an American social psychologist, is known for a number of studies, including the obedience studies (the Milgram experiment), the small-world problem (six degrees of separation), and the lost-letter technique. Unsurprisingly, it is his controversial namesake study, the Milgram experiment, for which he is best known.
In its simplest terms, the Milgram experiment explored humanity’s tendency to obey authority.
In 1961, an advertisement was placed for people to take part in a study about memory.
When a participant arrived for the study, a man in a grey lab coat introduced them to the other participant involved in the experiment.
The participants were told that there were two roles to be chosen: ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’. These roles were chosen by drawing slips of paper. There was no luck involved: both slips of paper actually said ‘teacher’, to ensure that the roles were the same each time. So, in each experiment there was always:
- the ‘experimenter’ – a man in a lab coat and a member of Milgram’s team
- the ‘learner’ – a man introduced as a participant, but actually a member of Milgram’s team
- the ‘teacher’ – the only true participant being observed in the study
The participants were told that the aim of the study was to understand the use of punishment as an aid to memory. The punishment that the ‘teacher’ would administer was a series of electric shocks.
The ‘learner’ was taken into another room, out of sight of the ‘teacher’. Before being separated, the ‘learner’ nervously informed the others that he had a heart condition. The ‘experimenter’ assured him he would be okay.
The ‘teacher’ thought that he was still able to communicate with the ‘learner’, but the responses they would hear from the ‘learner’ had been pre-recorded.
Before the memory test began, the ‘experimenter’ – the man in the lab coat – gave the ‘teacher’ a mild electric shock, as an example of what they would administer to the ‘learner’. The ‘teacher’ was then placed in charge of a very convincing box of switches and dials. The switches on this box began at 15 volts, labelled: “slight shock”, going all the way up to 450 volts, ominously labelled: “X X X”. The label just before this was: “Danger Severe Shock“. The intent of the machine was clear. Of course, the box was a fake and the ‘learner’ would not, in reality, receive any shocks at all.
The ‘teacher’ was told the aim was to help the ‘learner’ memorise a list of word pairs. They were instructed by the ‘experimenter’ to administer a shock whenever the ‘learner’ got an answer wrong. The ‘teacher’ was sure they were administering increasingly powerful shocks to the ‘learner’. As the experiment progressed, the ‘experimenter’ encouraged the ‘teacher’ to continue administering shocks for wrong answers. At a certain stage, the ‘learner’ began refusing to answer the questions. The ‘experimenter’ told the ‘teacher’ to interpret no answer as ‘wrong’ and administer an electric shock. Many participants asked to stop early on, but were sternly discouraged by the ‘experimenter’. As the voltages increased, the ‘learner’s pre-recorded responses became increasingly distressed:
“Oowww! Let me out of here. Let me out of here. Let me out of here. Do you hear? Let me out of here!”
Transcript at 270 volts, from “The Man Who Shocked The World” by Thomas Blass
Milgram’s aim was to see if only a minority of the participants would be willing to ‘obey’ and give the shocks. In his initial experiment, 65% of volunteers were fully obedient and administered the shocks all the way to 450 volts.
At every stage, sleight-of-hand was used against the participants of the study. There are many more details to the Milgram obedience experiment, but this experiment is not just about detail. The philosophical questions go much deeper. Both about what the Milgram experiment shows us and about what was undertaken in the name of science.
“This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”
- Stanley Milgram, 1974
Where are we now?
Would we be able to repeat these experiments today? Interest in Milgram’s work has remained at a constant since it first began. Replications and variations have taken place since the first experiment, in one form or another.
As recently as 2006, Jerry Burger, a social psychologist at the Santa Clara University undertook a study that partially replicated Milgram’s obedience experiments. However, Burger’s ‘shocks’ stopped at 150 volts. Burger also built in safeguards to protect his volunteers, including a multi-step screening process, culminating with an interview with a clinical psychologist.
So what is the alternative? Can we stop ourselves from ‘obedience at all costs’?
Both our desire for knowledge and our tendency to obey must be tempered with empathy. In fact, during his initial experiments, Milgram showed that one way to overcome obedience to authority was to draw on our own empathy. Another was to draw from the strength of others. A later variant of his own experiment had the best results, simply by allowing more than one ‘teacher’ into the study. While the extra ‘teachers’ were also part of Milgram’s team, when they rebelled, it allowed the participant to follow suit. In this version, with the support of their peers, only 10% of the participants were fully obedient.
That might well be the key. Obedience to authority is not the only way.
By Rose Wodecki