By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
According to psychology, apart from group influence, another powerful influence on behavior are orders given by a trusted authority figure. We are willing to engage in a particular behavior if instructed to do so by an authority figure. Why? Conducted by Professor Stanley Milgram, a study was designed in the early 1960s, as an attempt to understand what had taken place in Nazi Germany.
The Milgram Study
One of the earliest, and perhaps most well-known, research studies demonstrated people’s obedience, a general willingness to engage in behavior—if ordered to do so by an authority. It began in July of 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who requested clemency by claiming he was just following orders.
As Professor Stanley Milgram himself described,
Obedience, as a determinant of behavior, is of particular relevance to our time … Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded; daily quotas of corpses were produced … These inhumane policies … could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders.
The Milgram Study’s intent was to test people’s willingness to harm an innocent person, if ordered to do so by an authority. Conducted in Yale, the participants were told that it was a study of memory and learning.
Obedience and the Shock Experiment
When the participating subjects arrived at the lab, they were greeted by the experimenter and another person, who they were told was also participating in the study but was actually an accomplice of the experimenter. The experimenter then described the set-up of the study: one person would serve as the teacher and the other as a learner. According to the participating subjects, the test sought to answer an important scientific question, about the impact of punishment on the speed of learning.
The designated learner would be given a series of word pairs to memorize and would then be given the first word in the pair and asked to pick out the right match from a list of four options. If the learner chose the wrong option, the designated teacher would deliver a slight shock. The shock level would start at the lowest level—15 volts—but then would escalate each time the learner gave a wrong answer.
When the study starts, and pretty quickly the learner starts giving wrong answers, the teacher, as instructed, delivers a shock each time. It increases in intensity with each mistake. At the 75-volt level, the learner starts to cry out and at 150 volts, the learner asks to quit the experiment. Whenever the volunteer teacher asks the experimenter what they should do, they push them to continue saying, “The experiment requires that you continue,” or “It is absolutely essential that you continue”.
High Rates of Obedience
The experiment continued until one of two things happened: The designated teacher refused to continue delivering shocks or they reached the highest level of volts, which was 450 volts and was marked ‘XXX dangerous’ on the machine.
And yet, he big question for Milgram was: How many people would continue delivering shocks which they believed were harming an innocent person?
Before Milgram started the study, he asked psychiatrists their estimate regarding what percentage of people would keep delivering shocks. They felt that only a very small percentage —say one percent—would continue all the way to the highest level of shocks. But what did Milgram actually find? A staggering 65% of people continued all the way to 450 volts.
The Milgram study was conducted in the early 1960s, but slightly modified replications of the Milgram study in both, the United States, in 2006 , and Poland, in 2017, have found similarly high rates of obedience. Many descriptions of the Milgram study suggest that the participants easily went along with the experimenter’s orders to shock an innocent person. And yet, it’s important to recognize that this choice was decidedly not simple or easy, for virtually anyone.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Just Following Orders
Almost all at some point resisted, turned to the experimenter and questioned what they should do, and tried to quit. Videotapes of this study revealed that even those who continued delivering shocks all the way to the end agonized about what they were doing.
So, how do we explain their willingness to continue delivering the shocks? They were faced with a difficult and unusual dilemma. They had volunteered to participate in, what they believed, was a study testing an important question about how punishment influences learning. They trusted the experimenter, who, after all, was a psychology professor at Yale University. And then, when it became clear that the study didn’t just involve ‘mild punishment’, they didn’t know how to extricate themselves.
Another key factor that helped pushed people to continue delivering shocks was the experimenter’s willingness to take responsibility for any negative outcomes. The person delivering the shocks can, therefore, feel absolved of any wrong-doing because they were just following orders.
Feeling Responsible Matters
A recent detailed analysis of comments, from the volunteer teachers during a 2009 replication of the Milgram study, provides further evidence that feeling responsible definitely matters.
Two-thirds of those who expressed a sense that they were responsible for their actions, stopped delivering shocks. They did so before they reached maximum voltage, which in the replication study was 150 volts, even when the experimenter told them to continue. Of those who kept giving shocks up to the highest level, only 12% ever expressed feeling any personal responsibility.
Social Psychology of Groups
The social psychology of groups offers insights into some pretty depressing realities about human nature—our tendency to mindlessly conform to those around us, slack off in group settings, and harm others, if ordered to do so by an authority.
The silver lining is, however, that our desire to fit in with the group can save the day. It almost always pushes us towards positive and prosocial behaviors, even when the group is only an imagined community of others who are not physically present.
Common Questions about the Milgram Study
The Milgram Study‘s intent was to test people’s willingness to harm an innocent person, if ordered to do so by an authority.
A key factor that helped pushed people to continue delivering shocks was the experimenter’s willingness to take responsibility for any negative outcomes.
The Milgram study provides evidence that feeling responsible definitely matters. Two-thirds of those who expressed a sense that they were responsible for their actions, stopped delivering shocks.