Prof Milgram’s Experiment
Just how far are we prepared to go when acting under the orders of someone else? It is a question that has been at the centre of a number of news stories, such as the alleged mass-suicide in Uganda of hundreds of members of a religious cult.
I have to admit that my usual reaction to such stories is to think that such things only happen to people with feet of clay— and brains to match. It is certainly a lot more comforting than the alternative, which is to think that we too might be equally vulnerable to the influence of authority. But for years I have heard dark references to an experiment done years ago by an American psychologist, which allegedly proved that even the nicest people can be turned into amoral automatons with terrifying ease.
Sitting in the office of a psychologist friend, I finally discovered the source of these stories. There on his shelves was a copy of Obedience to Authority, published in 1974 by Stanley Milgram, a professor of psychology at the City University of New York. Prof Milgram’s book is a chillingly matter-of-fact account of the outcome of that experiment of which I had heard so many tantalising reports.
The book recounts how, while at Yale University between 1960 and 1963, Prof Milgram recruited members of the public to take part in what was advertised as a “study of memory”.
After being told that the study would look at the effect of punishment on learning, the recruits were led to a room to witness the “pupil”, a man in his forties being strapped to a chair and wired up to electrodes. A researcher explained that these would deliver shocks to the pupil, adding that while these could be extremely painful, they would cause no permanent tissue damage.
The recruits were then told to read out a list of word associations—and to give the pupil an electric shock if he made mistakes, using a console with switches going from 15 volts to 450, and marked “Slight Shock” all the way up to “Danger: Severe Shock”.
The experiment then began. The scientist in charge would instruct the recruit to deliver a shock at the next level of voltage, and to call out what voltage it was, each time the pupil blundered.
Although separated by a wall, the recruits could hear the pupil next door. And as the mistakes accumulated, so the protests from the room grew louder, turning to cries and then agonised screams. Recruits who started to demur were told that they had to continue, those who really kicked up a fuss were told they had no choice but to continue.
And despite all the screams from the room next door almost two-thirds of the recruits went all the way to the 450 volts —long after the pupil’s screams had been replaced by an ominous silence.
What the recruits did not know was that the pupil was a stooge, his “screams” just tape-recordings. But the results were all too genuine, and stunned everyone, including Prof Milgram. It seemed that ordinary people—professional engineers, care workers, housewives—could be persuaded to deliver lethal shocks to a perfect stranger by someone assuming authority.
His experiment exploded many comforting myths; women, for example, proved no less likely than men to go the whole way. Indeed, about the only remotely comforting finding lay in the reaction of one recruit, who refused to go beyond 215 volts. She proved to be a German émigré raised in Nazi Germany. Asked if this might have explained her refusal to go on, she said: “Perhaps we have seen too much pain.”
Would more people act like she did now, 40 years after Prof Milgram’s experiment? If no more caring than people in the sixties, perhaps we are more likely to question authority. Certainly it would be comforting to think so, but the only way to know would be to carry out a similar kind of experiment.
However, it is an experiment unlikely to be repeated any time soon. For one can just imagine the law-suits that would come from all those nice, law-abiding recruits demanding compensation for the psychological trauma of being revealed for what they really are.