Milgram Obedience Experiments

This morning I wish to talk about a very interesting psychology experiment. The experiment was carried out over thirty years ago in the United States by Milgram, but in repetitions around the world over the years the original findings have been confirmed.

Milgram’s study was an investigation of obedience. How willing people were to obey an authority figure. The experiment ran as follows:

Milgram advertised for men to participate in a psychology experiment at Yale University. Out of the respondents to the advert 40 men were selected. When they arrived at the experimental laboratory they were told they had earned their participation fee by turning up and that they were free to leave at any time.

Then the experimenter introduced each of the participants to someone who the participants were told was another participant. In fact the man they were introduced to was a 47 year-old accountant who was actually a confederate of the experimenter.

Next the experimenter explained to the participant that this experiment was investigating whether punishment improves learning and of the two men (the participant and the confederate) one would be the learner and the other would be the teacher. The teacher would then give the learner a test and punish mistakes with electric shocks.

After a rigged draw in which the actual participant always became the teacher and the confederate the learner, both men were led to a room which contained what looked like an electric chair. The learner was strapped into the chair and an electrode was attached to the learner’s wrist.

The teacher was then take to a control room where there was a bank of 30 switches labelled from 15 to 450 volts. Groups of switches also had labels ranging from Slight Shock up to Danger: Extreme Shock. The shock generator was then demonstrated to the teacher by giving him a 45 volt shock.

After a short demonstration of the testing procedure the teacher was told to start testing the learner. This involved giving a verbal test to the learner and then punishing mistakes by giving an electric shock. Moreover for each subsequent mistake the voltage was increased a level.

As the teacher increased voltage levels from 15 the learner would says little except “Ow” occasionally. At 120 volts the learner said, “This really hurts”. At the 150-volt level the learner yelled loudly and said “Experiment! That’s all. Get me out of here. I told you that I had heart trouble. I refuse to go on.” The experiment would then calmly tell the teacher to continue. Again the learner would get a question wrong, and after the 165 volt shock would yell and start saying, “Let me out.” Again after being told to continue, the teacher would continue. After 180volts the learner yelled, “I can’t stand the pain.” After 195 volts the learner started screaming, “Let me out of here. My heart’s bothering me. You have no right to keep me here.”

Many teachers at this point expressed concern that they might kill the learner. The experimenter, in strong terms, ordered the teacher to continue.

By this point, as the teacher pulled higher voltage switches the learner was screaming. At 300 volts the learner was virtually in hysterics and said that he would not answer any more questions. The experimenter calmly informed the teacher that lack of an answer constituted a wrong answer and told the teacher to continue. Teachers who had reached this point typically became very nervous and agitated. Nevertheless they continued. After an appalling scream at 315 volts, the learner collapsed into silence. All the way from 330 volts to 450 volts the learner neither responded to questions nor reacted to the shocks. For all the teacher knew the learner was dead or dying.

How many people do you think would continue to administer shocks up to the 450 volt level? And remember the experimenter had no power over the participants, at any point they could have taken their money and left. One of the participants? Two? Five?

Very disturbingly, in Milgram’s experiment 65% of men went all the way to the 450 volt level. No participant disobeyed the experiment before the 300 volt level at which the learner had screamed and refused to answer any more questions. In a similar experiment in Germany 85% of participants obeyed up to the strongest level, in Australia the figure dropped to 40%. Clearly quite a substantial proportion of people are willing to carry out callous and sadistic acts when they are told to do so. They are willing to obey.

This is information is not simply interesting. It has import to everyone here. Although Milgram’s experiment took place in a rather artificial environment, its general implications have been shown to carry through into the real world. “With numbing regularity good people were to seen to knuckle under to the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe”. To guard against this destructive obedience we must all retain a skeptical stance towards authority and those who give orders. Obedience is necessary for society to function but one should only obey orders that one considers legitimate - not just obey because of the position of the person giving those orders. As an interesting closing point it was found that “people who do not authority figures and people who insist on controlling their actions are less obedient in the Milgram situation than are more trusting peers.” Many acts of obedience to appalling, even genocidal, orders might have avoided if ordinary citizens were more willing to challenge authority figures and governments.