The year is 1963. The world has transcended from a World War being fought with ammunition and warships to a Cold War being contested with humans sent to outer space. The world has transcended from when a German man wanted to cleanse the world by getting rid of inferior races to a time when two superpower nations with contrasting political and economic ideologies are trying to stomp their dominance all over the world.
The US president has been mysteriously assassinated and the youth are actively participating in the counterculture revolution – wearing hippie clothes, listening to psychedelic music; and being vocal against racism, free speech infringement, gender discrimination and war. A professor at Yale University, who is Jewish by race and has concentration-camp-survivors family members, is curious to know about the construct of authority, obedience, and conscience.
On the battlefield, whether it is Pearl Harbour during WWII or the Cuban Missile Crisis during Cold War, a pre-requisite virtue to follow through such acts is obedience. To study the same virtue and its correlation with authority and conscience, Stanley Milgram (the Yale professor) conducted an experiment in 1963. The experiment is famously called the Milgram Experiment.
In this article, we explain the objective, method, and findings of the experiment. We also discuss and draw inferences from the experiment’s results.
The researcher’s purpose was to study how far people would go in obeying an instruction at the expense of inflicting harm on someone else. Milgram wanted to test the ease with which ordinary people could commit heinous acts upon orders from an authority.
Milgram decided to conduct a lab experiment. The experiment would require a learner, a teacher, and an experimenter. The experiment was conducted on a sample of 40 people.
In principle, two-thirds of teachers shocked learners to death for wrong answers in a learning experiment.
Profile of participants: Males, between ages 20 and 50, jobs ranged from unskilled to professional, all belong to New Haven area. The participants were paid $4.50 for coming. By design, all the 40 people took the role of a teacher; Milgram’s confederates were the learners, and at the experimenter’s seat sat an actor dressed in a grey lab coat.
Here is how the experiment was set up:
The learner was strapped to a chair with electrodes and asked to learn a list of word pairs. The teacher’s role is to test the learner’s memory by naming a word and asking him a multiple choice question and tell the paired word. The experiment involved the teacher giving electric shocks to the learner for every wrong answer. The level of shock would increase at every wrong answer upon the command of the experimenter.
The voltage range was between 15 volts and 450 volts. The highest voltage was marked as “Danger: severe shock”. The learner would intentionally give wrong answers to most of the questions, for which the teacher would give an electric shock. When the teacher refused to do it, the experimenter gave a series of orders to the teacher to continue.
The subjects ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not Stanley Milgram, The Perils of Obedience
The prods were in the following order:
- “Please continue”;
- “The experiment requires you to continue”;
- “It is absolutely essential that you continue”;
- “You have no other choice but to continue”.
The learner unstrapped himself from the electric chair; and played a series of recorded message every time a shock was administered, highlighting his heart condition and the excruciating pain.
Below is a video of the Milgram experiment at play:
Participants were asked before the experiment commenced if they would administer a 450-volt shock (which can be fatal). 100 percent participants had refused to do it. The outcome of the lab experiment was significantly different though. Two-thirds of the participants ended up continuing to the highest and fatal level of 450 volts. In several trials, where the shock level reached the “danger: severe shock” levels, the participants did not respond and nothing was heard in the teacher and experimenter room. It can be inferred from here that 65 percent of men kept administering electric shocks for wrong answers upon orders to the degree that the learner was electrocuted to death. Also, every teacher reached at least 300 volts when questioning and punishing the learner.
Humans aren't innately evil beings. There were social reasons behind the actions of the participants
Milgram found out that people can go to the extent of killing an innocent person when forced by authority. The chief finding of the study, in Milgram’s words, was, “the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority.”
To find reason in the inhuman and immoral behavior of participants, Milgram conducted a range of variations in his original experiment. In the variations, when an “ordinary man” gave orders (someone not disguised as an authority figure), the percentage of people who were obedient and followed orders dropped to just 20 percent. In one of the cases, two other participants refused to give shock and this dropped the obedience percentage to just 10 percent.
These variations were important to determine that the independent variable in the experiment was in fact authority. There were social reasons people went to the extent they did, and their actions in the original experiment did not imply that humans are innately evil beings.
There are multiple corollaries that can be drawn and applied in an organizational context. It could be when you are asked to do something unethical which you know isn’t right, maybe inventing reasons in an employee’s performance so that they can be cited during an illegitimate termination to get out of paying severance and also avoid any legal ramifications.
There is often a get-out-of-jail card available – “I was following orders.”
But isn’t that also what the Nazis said at Nuremberg Trials?