Milgram experiment

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The Milgram experiment is the name for a number of controversial experiments in psychology. They were done by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. Milgram wanted to find out if people would follow orders, even if the orders went against their conscience. He proved they would. There have been many repetitions and variations, with similar results.[1][2]

The experiments do not answer the question as to why apparently normal people commit atrocities in wartime. However, "obedience to authority" is built into the experiment, since the subjects were paid, and acting under the instructions of a senior university professor. Many were students.

The experiment[change | change source]

Participants (acting as "teachers") gave what they thought were electric shocks to "learners". The "learners" were actually actors, and the shocks were spoof (not real). The learners reacted as if they were in real pain. As the "shocks" increased, they acted as if in very bad pain.

If at any time the subject ("teacher") wanted to stop the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum "450-volt" shock three times in succession.

Milgram found that some of the "teachers" became very nervous. For example, they would laugh and be unable to control it.[3]

Before Milgram did his experiment, he asked fourteen Yale University psychology students what they thought the results would be. On average, the students thought that 1.2% of the "teachers" would give the biggest electric shock of 450 volts. In fact, in Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of participants administered the experiment's final massive 450-volt shock.

Milgram wrote about the experiment in his book Obedience to Authority: an experimental view. It was published in 1974. Milgram's experiments have been done again by many psychologists, with very similar results.

Interpretations[change | change source]

Milgram offered two theories:

  • The first is the theory of conformism, describing the fundamental relationship between the group of reference and the individual person. A subject who has neither ability nor expertise to make decisions, especially in a crisis, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy. The group is the person's behavioral model.
  • The second is the agentic state theory, where "the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow".[4]

Alternative interpretations[change | change source]

Other factors might partly explain the Milgram experiments:

"[People] have learned that when experts tell them something is all right, it probably is, even if it does not seem so. In fact, it is worth noting that in this case the experimenter was indeed correct: it was all right to continue giving the "shocks" — even though most of the subjects did not suspect the reason".[5]

Pop culture[change | change source]

The experiment has been mentioned numerous times in pop culture. In the graphic novel V for Vendetta Dr. Surridge said that he has lost faith in humanity because of the experiment. In 2013 there was a conference about it at Nipissing University in Canada.

References[change | change source]

  1. Milgram, Stanley 1963. Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67 (4): 371–8. [1]
  2. Milgram, Stanley 1974. Obedience to authority: an experimental view. Harpercollins. ISBN 0-06-131983-X
  4. Source: A cognitive reinterpretation of Stanley Milgram's observations on obedience to authority. American Psychologist 45: 1384–1385 (1990)
  5. Shiller, Robert (2005). Irrational exuberance (2nd ed.). Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 158.