Milgram’s Experiments and the Perils of Obedience
What would your reaction be if an authority figure ordered you to do something that was morally or legally wrong? Would you go through with it? For instance, if a policeman asked you to do something that was akin to covering up a crime, would you do it? Many of us might claim that they wouldn’t do it, but science has a contrary opinion.
Obedience to authority is a fundamental element in the structure of society. Without some form of authority, society would most likely end up in anarchy. Since birth, we are taught that we should obey authority, and threatened with punishment should we disobey. Many childhood stories and parental lessons constantly emphasize on this.
Our experiences since childhood also reaffirm the importance of obedience. For instance, a parent might ask a child not to touch a hot cooking pot. The child disobeys the parent and touches the pot, only to end up burning his finger.
Through such experiences, the child learns that obeying his parents is paramount for his safety and wellbeing.
As we grow older, we learn to trust and obey people in positions of authority even more. In school, we are taught to obey our teachers since we believe they know what is good and bad for us. The same happens once we get to work, where we have to obey our bosses and others in positions of power. The same happens in other areas of life.
We learn to trust and obey doctors because they are more knowledgeable than us in matters health. We trust and obey our lawyers in legal matters because they are an authority in that particular field.
Sometimes, our inclination to obey authority can lead us to commit actions that might be essentially wrong, provided we are submitting to authority when doing so.
A good example of such a situation is the story of Abraham from the Bible. Abraham was ready to kill his only son and offer him as a burnt sacrifice simply because God had asked him to do it. What would you if you were in the same position? Would you do it? Is this something that can actually happen in real life?
To answer this question, let us take a look at Milgram’s experiments.
MILGRAM’S SHOCKING EXPERIMENTS
The experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram from 1961 have become some of the most famous studies in the field of psychology and obedience. The experiments began shortly after the start of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, A German Nazi war criminal.
During the trial, Eichmann’s defense was that he was not responsible for the millions of deaths during the holocaust. Eichmann argued that he was only guilty of having been obedient. Eichmann’s defense caught the interest of Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University who was also a Jew and whose family had been affected by the Holocaust.
Influenced by Eichmann’s argument, Milgram decided to conduct an experiment focusing on the conflict between personal conscience and obedience to authority. The experiments’ results led to a major finding in psychology: very often, a man’s actions are not defined by the kind of person he is, but rather by the situation in which he finds himself.
The aim of Milgram’s experiment was to find out how far people would go in obeying instructions from a seemingly authoritative person if the instructions involved causing bodily harm to another person.
For the experiment, Milgram recruited random volunteers by placing calls for volunteers in newspaper ads and paid them $4.50 for their participation in the experiment. Each session of the experiment involved three parties: the experimenter, the teacher and the learner.
The experiment was disguised as a study on the effect of punishment and learning. The teacher was the volunteer, who was led to believe that he would be assisting the experimenter to conduct the experiment. In real sense, the teacher was the subject of the experiment. The learner, on the other hand, was an actor and a confederate of the experimenter. However, the learner also pretended to be a volunteer.
Before the start of the experiment, the teacher and the learner arrived together and were introduced to each other. It was clarified to both of them that they would both earn the $4.50 regardless of the outcome of the experiment.
To keep up the appearance that both were volunteers, they drew slips to determine who would play the role of the teacher or learner.
Unbeknownst to the teacher (subject), both slips read “teacher”. The actor would then claim to have picked the “learner” slip, which meant that the subject would always play the role of the teacher. Once the roles were picked, both the teacher and the learner were guided to a room where the learner was strapped to what seemed to be an electric chair, complete with electrodes.
Before starting the experiment, a sample electric shock was administered to the teacher to give him an idea of what the learner would be supposedly going through during the experiment. The teacher was then taken to an adjacent room which had an intimidating shock generator that the teacher would use to administer punishment (electric shocks) to the learner.
The shock generator was equipped with switches denoting the amount of electric shock the learner would be receiving, with each switch being 15 volts higher than the previous one. The highest level of electric shock was the 450 volts switch.
Next to the switches were labels indicating the intensity of the electric shock, starting from ‘slight shock’ to “Danger: severe shock”. The last two switches with the highest level of electric shock were marked with an ambiguous “XXX”.
Once the experiment got underway, the teacher was presented with a list of word pairs that he was supposed to teach the learner. The teacher first read the list of words with their corresponding words to the learner, and then moved on to simply reading a word and presenting four possible corresponding words.
The learner gave his answer by pressing a button. For every wrong answer, the teacher was required to deliver shocks to the learner, with 15 volt increments after every wrong answer. The learners answers were mostly wrong (this was done on purpose), and the teacher delivered an increasing electric shock for each wrong answer.
Unknown to the teacher, the shock generator was not sending out any actual shocks. Instead, the learner only pretended to be receiving the shocks.
As the experiment progressed and the voltage of the ‘electric shocks’ increased, the learner started making audible pleas to be released from the electric chair. At some point, the learner even complained that he had a heart condition that would be aggravated by the severity of the electric shocks.
As the electric shocks reached the 300 volt mark, the learner started banging repeatedly on the wall begging for the experiment to stop. As the shocks moved towards the highest voltage, the learner simply went silent, refusing to answer any more questions. At this point, the teacher was asked to take the silence for a wrong answer and increase the intensity of the shock.
At some point, most participants (teachers) grew worried about the learner and grew hesitant about delivering the shocks. Whenever the subjects grew hesitant, the experimenter would urge them to go on with a series of the following commands:
“The experiment requires that you continue.”
“It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
“You have no other choice; you must go on.”
The commands were used progressively every time the teacher voiced their objection about going on with the experiment.
What would you do if you were the teacher?
Would you go on to administer shock levels that were marked as extremely dangerous, even when the learner had complained of having a bad heart?
HOW FAR CAN PEOPLE GO IN OBEDIENCE TO AUTHORITY?
For Milgram, the measure of obedience was determined by the highest level of shock the subjects were willing to administer on the learners. Would the subjects deliver the maximum 450 volts of electric shock?
Before starting the experiment, this question was posed to a group of students from Yale University. The students predicted that only 3% or less of the participants would go ahead to deliver the maximum 450 volts.
The students believed only a psychopath would deliver the maximum level of shock. Milgram’s colleagues also believed that only a few subjects would go past the “very strong” level of shock.
Milgram also posed the question to 40 psychiatrists, and they all agreed that most subjects would stop the experiment once the learner started demanding to be freed. The results, however, were very different.
All the 40 subjects who participated in the study obeyed the instructions of the experimenter and delivered the electric shocks up to 300 volts. 26 of the 40 participants went ahead to deliver the maximum 450 volts. That is a whopping 65% of the participants, compared to the 3% that was predicted before the experiment.
Many of the subjects displayed signs of tension during the experiment, which shows that delivering the shocks went against their personal conscience. Still, they obeyed the experimenter’s instructions all the way to the end.
CONCLUSIONS FROM MILGRAM’S EXPERIMENT
Following his experiments, Milgram came to the conclusion that in doing their jobs, ordinary people who do not have any malicious intent can become part of a terrible, destructive process.
Milgram also noted that, even when it was patently clear that what they were doing led to destructive results, and that their actions went against the fundamental standards of morality, only a few people have what it takes to resist authority.
According to Milgram, the subjects went ahead to perform the seemingly sadistic act, not because of their personalities, but because of the situation in which they found themselves. Milgram claimed that their high levels of obedience could have been brought about by factors such as:
- An authority figure (the experimenter) was physically present during the experiment. In some variations of the experiment, the experimenter left the room and left an ordinary member of the public (a confederate in ordinary clothing) in charge of the experiment. When the experimenter was not physically present in the room, the compliance levels dropped to 20%.
- The fact that the study was sponsored by and conducted at Yale University (an authoritative and trusted academic institution). In variations where the experiment was conducted in a set of run down offices rather than the university, compliance levels dropped to 47.5%.
- The subjects assumed that the experimenter was an expert.
- The experimenter assured the subjects that he would take responsibility in case anything happened to the learner during the experiment.
- The subjects were reassured that the shocks were only painful, but not dangerous to the health or wellbeing of the learner.
Milgram’s experiments have received a lot of criticism due to the ethical nature of his experiments, mostly due to the use of deception in the experiment and the use of human subjects. However, the experiments and their findings have become a psychology classic, showing the dangers of obedience.
The experiment demonstrated that situational factors have a stronger influence on obedience than personality. Milgram’s experiments have been replicated severally with consistent results.
In 2009, Santa Clara University professor Jerry M. Burger replicated Milgram’s experiments and found out that people would still go ahead and deliver what they believed to be painful electric shocks to a stranger when urged by an authoritative figure.
In Burger’s experiment, the obedience levels were only slightly lower than those in Milgram’s original experiment from nearly 50 years earlier. A similar experiment was replicated in Poland with similarly shocking results. Authority is also listed as one of Robert Cialdini’s 6 principles of influence, alongside other principles like reciprocity, scarcity, liking, consistency and social proof.
Perhaps the most shocking display of how far people can go in obedience to authority was a series of real life scam phone calls that have come to be known as the McDonald’s strip search hoax.
Starting in 1992 and extending over a period of 12 years, a series of incidents were reported where a man claiming to be a police office would call rural restaurants and grocery stores and convince the managers that a female employee was suspected of theft.
The “police officer” would then ask the managers to conduct a strip search on the employee and have the employee perform other bizarre acts. The managers believed they were acting on behalf of the police.
The most famous of these incidents happened in a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky. The caller asked the manager to perform a strip search on a female employee and even had a male employee brought into the room.
Following the instructions of the caller, the manager even brought her fiancé to her office where the female employee was being strip searched and had the fiancé assault the female employee sexually.
While the man behind the calls was eventually apprehended and tried, the incidents show how people can go willing to perform acts that go against their better judgment in obedience to authority.
HOW AUTHORITY IS USED TO PERSUADE IN DAILY LIFE
You might not be asked to administer electric shocks to an innocent stranger, and mysterious callers are not going to call you claiming to be police officers asking you to conduct strip searchers of your employees, but authority can still be used to persuade you to do things you might not ordinarily do or things that go against your better judgment.
For instance, con artists rely on the principle of authority to swindle or defraud you. Most con artists are talented actors. The con artist pretends to be an authority on a certain subject, and because you are psychologically predisposed to trust and obey authority, you go along with their scams without questioning, only to later realize they have stolen from you.
In the same way, marketers convince you to purchase their products and services by using the authority principle. They claim to be the leading authority in their fields or even hire actors to play as lawyers and doctors advising you to go for their products.
One thing you need to realize about obedience to authority is that people are inclined to obey authority even when the authority is not real. For instance, in Milgram’s experiment, Milgram himself was not in the room during the experiment.
Instead, he hired an actor to pretend to be the experimenter. By simply pretending to be an expert and donning a white lab coat, the actor was able to convince the subjects in the experiment that he was an authority figure, and majority of the subjects went along with the actor’s wishes.
Therefore, before complying with instructions or requests by an authority figure, it is good to take a minute to ask yourself whether the person authority is genuine.
According to Robert Cialdini, there are three symbols that people use to signify authority and therefore get you to comply with their wishes in the absence of genuine authority. The three symbols are:
Titles: Regardless of the nature of titles, or whether they are authentic or not, titles make a person appear more competent and more authoritative. Therefore, when you notice a person throwing around titles such as Dr. CEO, Chairman, Prof, Founder, PhD, and so on when they want you to do something, you should treat it as red flag. They might be trying to play on the authority principle to get you to comply with them.
Clothes: Clothes are also commonly used to signify authority. Many authoritative positions are usually associated with a certain kind of clothing – uniforms for police officers and fire fighters, religious outfits for religious leaders, executive suits for business executives, and so on. People can trigger your inclination to obey their requests by simply donning clothes that imply authority, even the people themselves are not in a position of authority.
For instance, in Milgram’s experiment, the experimenter (actor) signified authority by simply donning a white lab coat. Another research by Bickman (1974), also found that people were more likely to obey an actor dressed in a guard’s uniform than the same actor dressed as a milkman or in civilian clothing.
Trappings: Authority can also be signified by the material goods and luxuries that are associated with positions of authority. Things such as nice cars, expensive suits, mansions, jewelry, and so on are associated with positions of power, and people might use them in order to signify authority, even when the authority is not authentic.
HOW TO RESIST UNWANTED PRESSURE FROM AUTHORITY
We have seen that authority can be used to pressure us to do things that go against our personal conscience or better judgment, even when the authority is not genuine. Is it possible to resist these pressures?
Fortunately, there are some actions you can take when you feel you are being pressured by authority to do something you do not want to. These include:
- Question the authority’s legitimacy: We have already seen above that people can imply authority using titles, clothes and trappings of authority, even when their authority is not genuine. If someone tries to use any of these symbols of authority to get you to do something, you should first find out whether their legitimacy is legitimate. For instance, if someone claiming to be an expert in something gives you some advice that does not make sense, don’t follow the advice blindly. Instead, do some research on your own and ascertain the legitimacy of what they are saying.
- Consider your own conscience: When someone asks you to do something, ask yourself if it is something you would do out of your own initiative. If not, it might be wise to stay away from whatever you are being asked to do.
- Don’t comply with instructions that make you feel uneasy, even when they appear to be minor: In Milgram’s experiment, the subjects started by delivering harmless amounts of electric shock, before moving on to levels that were dangerous for the subject. Similarly, in the McDonald’s strip search hoax, victims started by being asked to do something small, such as checking the suspect’s pockets, before it gradually escalated. Giving in to the smaller requests makes it easier for you to perform the huge and distractive acts. It can be hard to pull yourself from the authority’s grip, since doing so would mean that the initial actions you took were also wrong, thus creating cognitive dissonance.
- Look for support: If you are asked to perform actions that you feel are against fundamental standards of morality in a group, find someone who shares your concerns. It is easier to resist authority when there is more of you compared to when you’re dissenting alone. In one variation of Milgram’s experiments, the subject was placed into a three person teaching team where two of the teachers (confederates of the experimenter) refused to deliver shocks past a certain point. In this variation of the experiment, only 10% of the subjects went ahead to deliver the maximum shock.
While obedience is a good thing and helps maintain order within society, blind obedience to authority can be catastrophic.
The findings of Milgram’s experiments show that ordinary people with no malicious intent can become agents in a destructive process, not because of their personality, but because of the situation they find themselves in, and because authority has a stronger influence on obedience than personal conscience.
With this in mind, it is important to be aware of how authority can be used to influence us and how to protect ourselves from the pressures of authority.
The key takeaway is that, wherever you find yourself doing something because of the pressure from authority, you should take a step back and ask yourself whether this is something you would actually do out of your own volition.
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