In a chilling experiment conducted in the early 1960s, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram set out to understand why Nazi soldiers followed orders to murder millions. The set-up of the experiment was clever. Members of the public would act as a teacher and test another supposed member of the public, the learner, on simple word association tests. A scientist, the experimenter, would oversee this.
The teacher was told by the experimenter to impart successively larger electric shocks to the learner when they made errors – the voltage started at 15V and would go up to 450V. They were told this was part of a “scientific study of memory and learning”. If the teacher protested upon seeing the learner scream, the experimenter would tell the teacher to continue. Before you get upset with Milgram, I should add that the learner was actually an actor and the electric shocks were not real. The learner was actually following a script for each level of voltage, which included:
“75 volts: Ugh!
120 volts: Ugh! This really hurts
190 volts: Ugh! Let me out of here. Let me out of here. My heart’s bothering me. Let me out of here! You have no right to keep me here! Let me out! Let me out of here! Let me out! Let me out of here! My heart’s bothering me. Let me out! Let me out!
330 volts (Intense end prolonged agonized scream.) Let me out of here. Let me out of here. My heart’s bothering me. Let me out, I tell you. (Hysterically) Let me out of hem. Let me out of here. You have no right to hold me here. Let me out! Let me out! Let me out! Let me out of here! Let me out! Let me out!”(You can watch a video of parts of the experiment here)
So do you think the testers would follow orders and electrocute the learners at the highest voltage of 450 volts? Before the experiment, Milgram had asked psychologists and the public what proportion of people would follow orders to this extent – most thought only 5% would. The actual result was 65%. Milgram was disillusioned after this experiment and wrote:
“The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study … Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority”
Milgram went on to conduct variations of this experiment. Shockingly, when another volunteer was introduced to actually press the button to electrocute the learner, compliance went up to 93%. But before you lose hope, there were four things that did reduce obedience:
1) Reduced credibility of authority figure. One variation of the experiment was to get theexperimenter to be called away and be replaced by an ordinary person in everyday clothes. In this case, compliance fell to 20%. More tellingly, one version had two experimenters of equal status. They were made to disagree on whether to proceed with the experiment beyond 150V. The public’s obedience to complete the experiment fell to zero.
2) Other teachers don’t obey. Milgram introduced one to two additional teachers (actors) and each had to do the experiment together. When the additional teachers refused to comply, only 10% of the public completed the test.
3) Distance from authority figure. When teachers received instructions via the phone rather than in-person, compliance fell to 20%
4) Being near to the victim. If the teacher had to hold the learners hand to the shock plate, then only 30% of the teachers would follow through to the highest voltage.