Stanley Milgram’s Experiment

In 1961 Dr. Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments at Yale University that measured the willingness of people to follow orders. The Obedience Experiment started simply, with normal people being asked to perform mildly unusual tasks, but gradually escalated to the point where the experiment’s subjects were ordered to commit atrocities. Despite screams and begging by the “victims” (actually trained actors) most people were willing to administer potentially lethal electrical shocks to other humans when told to do so by someone nominally “in charge”. Typically, the authority figure was presented as a lab-coated doctor with a clipboard, with no other standing; one of the finding of these experiments was that assuming the mantle of authority is trivially easy. Most people will obey anyone wearing anything vaguely resembling an official uniform.

“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, 1974.

The Milgram experiments are widely believed to be damaging to participants, who are forced to confront their own moral incapacities, and are rarely repeated these days. However, they have been repeated, many times in many places and with many refinements, and the results are appreciably the same. Most people, in most places and most circumstances, will do what they are told. Most people are simply not capable of acting independently if other humans are present. We are pack animals, and most of us display a stronger conformance to the demands of our gang, party or nation than we do our own professed morals and ethics.

“With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter’s definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.” — Milgram, 1965.

“I have carried out two data analyses that provide at least some evidence to back up this assertion. In one, I correlated the results of Milgram’s standard obedience experiments and the replications conducted by others with their dates of publication. The results: There was absolutely no relationship between when a study was conducted and the amount of obedience it yielded. In a second analysis, I compared the outcomes of obedience experiments conducted in the U.S. with those conducted in other countries. Remarkably, the average obedience rates were very similar: In the U.S. studies, some 61 percent of the subjects were fully obedient, while elsewhere the obedience rate was 66 percent.” — Thomas Blass, 2002.

Hannah Arendt, in her book about Adolf Eichmann’s trial, called Eichmann an embodiment of the “Banality of Evil”, as he appeared at his trial to be an ordinary career military officer, with no signs of mania, guilt, hatred or sadism. Milgram, responding to Arendt’s suggestion that this discredits the idea that the Nazi criminals were manifestly psychopathic and different from ordinary people, created the Obedience Experiment, which strongly supports Arendt’s thesis. Only a minority of us are truly capable of choosing good or evil; the clear majority will simply do as they are told. Are you a crowd-programmed slave, or a self-directed moral being?

“The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.” — Stanley Milgram, 1974.

As I look around me, and see the vast powers that obvious sociopaths wield in the high places of government, I try to find the spark of hope that Millgram himself found in his work. Less than half of us, probably less than a quarter of us are truly able to make decisions from our own moral compass when surrounded by the exhortations of politics and advertising. But surely that self-actualized portion can do more than a league of drones, herded and directed by megalomaniacs?

“I started with the belief that every person who came to the laboratory was free to accept or to reject the dictates of authority. This view sustains a conception of human dignity insofar as it sees in each man a capacity for choosing his own behavior. And as it turned out, many subjects did, indeed, choose to reject the experimenter’s commands, providing a powerful affirmation of human ideals.” — Milgram, 1964.