The Obedience to Authority Experiment of Stanley Milgram is one of the most studied experiments in American history due to its wide-ranging social implications. The study gained popular attention because it aimed to provide some insight as to why the Holocaust had escalated in such a way. The study was designed around testing the degree of inflicted pain strangers would give to others, under orders by an experimenter. Not only did the study defy what others predict would happen, but it clearly unmasked the immorality of human judgment under the obedience of a fellow partner. In Milgram’s follow-up paper titled, “The Perils of Obedience”, he outlined the results, which point to the fact that relatively few people have the mental resources needed to resist authority. This paper will outline the setup of the experiment and follow up with the results and finally the social implications of such a study.
The experiment, which began in 1961, was designed in order to provide justifications as to why there were so many accomplices in the events of the Holocaust. Less than a year after the trial of a famous Nazi war criminal (Eichmann), finding out the main social driver behind the Holocaust was of importance in the world agenda. Milgram (1974) wrote in “The Perils of Obedience”, "[C]ould it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" Milgram (1963) wanted to investigate whether ordinary Germans were particularly obedient to authority figures as this was a common explanation for the Nazi killings in World War II. The study was designed in a way to see to what extent ordinary people can be turned to commit atrocities through obedience.
The study setup involved using a participant acting as a teacher, the experimenter and a confederate “learner” who was introduced as an ordinary man to the participant. The study worked by having a participant (the teacher) administer increasing levels of shocks to a learner (who was actually acting the pain) whenever he would mistake a phrase the participant attempted to teach. The experimenter effectively urged the participant to continue shocking the “learner” despite the learner crying for it to stop. The experimenter used a series of prompts, such as, “It is absolutely essential that you continue”, in order to entice the participant to continue. The setup of the study came under criticism that the participants may become psychologically broken because of “inflicted insight”, which is when a study unmasks something that is wrong with the participant. Regardless the study was redone multiple times to ensure quality.
The results of this experiment were controversial and unexpected. 65% of the participants in the study ended up “shocking” the actor at the full intensity 450 volts. Everyone else made it up to 300 volts before stopping. Some potential faults in the study sprang up as criticism. Firstly, the experimenter may have used more than 4 prompts at times in order to entice the participants to continue. Also, participants may have realized during the process that the study was too intense to be real. In the original published paper Milgram wrote how, “every participant paused and questioned the experiment; some said they would refund the money they were paid for participating in the experiment. Throughout the experiment, subjects displayed varying degrees of tension and stress. Subjects were sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin, and some were even having nervous laughing fits or seizures” (Milgram, 1963). The results of the study showed how easily people could be turned into agents of terror.
Milgram’s conclusions on the study pointed to the fact that ordinary people can become part of a terrible destructive process because they do not have the moral power to resist authority. Although most people