The Milgram experiment is a controversial study conducted to test how far will people go to obey orders from a person in authority.
Adolf Eichmann was one of the major organizers of the concentration camps during World War II where about 6 million Jews were slaughtered.
If you had to visualize Eichmann’s personality what would come to your mind? You’d think of a cold-hearted general who had no respect for life. You’d consider him as a person who enjoyed sadistic punishments and genocide. You’ll see images in your head where he is mercilessly killing people.
But guess what Eichmann said during his trials? He claimed that he was innocent and he did what he did because his superiors forced him to.
“What a load of baloney. How can anyone perform such gruesome crimes just because of orders? He deserves to be hanged,” you blurt out.
Hold that thought. A Yale University psychologist called Stanley Milgram performed a series of experiments to check how far would a person go to obey authority. A heads up – the results will shock you.
By the way, if you’re wondering what happened to Eichman, the court declared him guilty and hanged him in 1962. We’ll never know if he was telling the truth until we find a way to bring the dead back to life. But if you’re certain he was lying from the deepest of your intestines I encourage you to read this article before jumping to a conclusion.
- The Milgram Experiment:
- Controversies and challenges:
- The takeaway from the Milgram experiment:
The Milgram Experiment:
The Milgram experiment is among the most controversial studies which tested how obedient people are towards orders. The study measured if normal people would respond to authority even when their actions lead to obvious disastrous consequences.
Stanley Milgram had heard about numerous Nazi officers claiming innocence during their trials stating that they were simply following orders. Instead of dismissing their statements as blatant lies, Milgram decided to perform an experiment to test if their words had any truth.
The process to choose participants:
The experiment began about 3 months after the trial when Milgram put an ad in the newspaper asking for male participants willing to take part in a study at the Yale University.
After going through all the applicants, he chose 40 people. Each of them went through the experiment separately, in the presence of one researcher and another person. The subject was told that the 3rd person was also a volunteer but in reality, he was an actor intentionally placed into the setup as a part of the experiment.
The subjects and the actor arrived in pairs and the researcher told them that they’re a part of a study that tests the effect of punishment on memory. To prevent any unintentional thoughts in the subject’s mind, the researcher said that their pairing was based on a random draw and the results wouldn’t influence their payment.
The set up:
After the debriefing, all 3 of them entered a room that had the set up to administer an electric shock. The actor would be strapped to a chair to ensure he couldn’t escape and the subject had to administer the shock by turning a knob.
Before the test began, the experimenter gave a sample shock to the subject to know what it felt like. He was also informed that the methods were safe and that the shock would not cause any permanent harm to the actor.
The actor was then strapped to a chair and the subject had to turn the knob.
The experimenter then began a memory test by reading out word pairs to the actor who had to retain them in memory. Soon after, he had to pass a quick test. The experimenter would pick one of the uttered words and the actor had to choose the right pair among 4 choices. If the answer was right, the experimenter would move on to the next question. If the actor chose the wrong answer, he would receive a jolt of shock. For every incorrect answer, the subject was asked to increase the shock voltage by 15V.
The fake setup and the actor:
In reality, the whole apparatus was a setup. Turning the knob only changed the display and did not shock the actor strapped to the chair. The actor intentionally gave incorrect answers to most questions. The experiment was to test how the subject would react and had nothing to do with memory.
As the subject administered shocks, the actor pretended to experience pain. As the voltage went higher, so did the actor’s screams. He cried, yelled, and banged on the wall. Anyone could notice the agony he was in.
Most subjects who were tuning the knob hesitated and asked the experimenter what was going on. But the researchers had prepared for such objections. Whenever subjects asked to stop the experiment, they were persuaded to continue. The experimenter would use specific verbal cues to convince them to go on. The persuasive statements were in the following order, where the lower one was used only if the previous one did not work.
- Please continue or Please go on.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice; you must go on.
If the subject objected beyond the 4th statement, the experiment was halted.
The researchers had also prepared answers for certain questions which the subject was likely to ask. For example, when the subject questioned if the shock was dangerous, the experimenter replied, “Although the shocks may be painful, they won’t cause any permanent tissue damage, so please go on.”
The scenarios for stopping the experiment were:
- If the subject declined to continue even beyond the 4th verbal statement
- If the subject had administered the max shock of 450V 3 times
Before the experiment, Milgram had asked 14 senior psychology majors from Yale University, what they expected the result would be. He also spoke to 40 psychiatrists from a medical school for their predictions.
From the data gathered, it was expected that 3.7% of the subjects would continue beyond 300V and less than 0.1% would administer the highest 450V shock.
If Milgram called you for your input, what would you predict? Do you think 5%-10% administered the max shock, and most of them left the experiment halfway? Are you expecting a larger or a smaller number?
Most people make guesses that are far off from the real results.
In the Milgram experiment, 26 out of the 40 participants(65%) administered the 450V shock. All the participants administered at least 300V. The subjects did show various signs of stress such as sweating, trembling, biting nails, and rubbing hands. Every participant paused the experiment at least once to clarify if the situation was normal.
Though the reaction of the actor showed extreme distress and danger, the subjects obeyed orders even when their conscience was screaming “This doesn’t seem right”
What the researchers concluded:
The researchers concluded that ordinary people who had no enmity towards the other person can become agents of a destructive process when they’re under the influence of authority.
Controversies and challenges:
Though the Milgram experiment resulted in unexpected actions, several researchers challenged the methods used and conclusions drawn.
1. Administering shock is not the same as the torture Nazi’s unveiled
Though people did administer the maximum 450V shock, they did so under the instructions that the actor was safe. And in reality, they were right because no one was harmed. The Nazis, however, could see the suffering and genocide with their own eyes.
2. Unexpected situations
In the Milgram experiment, the volunteers registered for a study on memory, but the setup they were put in was unexpected. The surprise could have caused actions because the subject was confused and unprepared. In comparison, the Nazi commanders had a clear goal in the concentration camps.
3. Short duration causes different actions
The Milgram experiment lasted less than an hour per subject. The short duration hardly offered enough time to think through. Besides, the pressure to act could have led to situational decisions outside the subjects’ choice. The limited-time was insufficient to reflect on one’s action. The Nazis, however, tortured people for years which was enough time to think about the morality of one’s actions.
4. No other factors considered
In the experiment, the subjects had no clue who the actor was. Therefore, they had no biases or hatred towards the person. But many of the Nazi commanders had other biases, racism, and communal hatred towards the prisoners. Such reasons are not a justification for the heinous crimes the Nazis committed, but a pointer to explain the difference between the Milgram Experiment and the concentration camps.
5. People can believe in illogical things when the proof isn’t clear
The Milgram experiment can be used to justify the behavior of people who committed crimes without knowing the consequences of their actions, for example, the general who arrested the jews and shipped them on trains. One can give them the benefit of doubt that they did not know where the jews went or what happened to them. But the generals who commandeered mass executions knew the extent of damage they were causing.
The takeaway from the Milgram experiment:
Human beings tend to obey a person in authority even if the actions go against one’s own belief system or values. Such behavior is called authority bias as per psychology. You may not commit crimes like murder or theft, but you’re susceptible to perform simpler actions that you don’t want to. For example:
- Following the instructions of your boss even if they seem wrong
- Blindly implementing ideas of an expert without applying your own thought
- Buying stocks because a billionaire announced his investment portfolio
- Treading the exact footsteps of a successful entrepreneur
By the way, I’m not saying that you must not act on any advice or use learning material. In the above examples, the tips you receive will include valuable advice too. But no matter what the insight is or who it comes from, take a moment to process it and apply your own thoughts. Ask yourself:
- Should I follow the advice as is?
- Is my situation different? Does it need some tweaking?
- Is what I am doing ethically and logically right?
- Does the advice hold the same value currently?
- What are the chances that the expert is wrong?
Using your own judgement is essential especially when you’re applying generic advice from a person who doesn’t know you personally. For example, an article off the internet or a prerecorded online course can offer valuable advice from one perspective which is irrelevant or obsolete to you. Using your own thinking helps you learn and become a smarter person overall.
The Milgram experiment made people do things that surprised the psychologists and participants themselves. However, whether the same mindset would apply in all scenarios for every immoral deed is debatable.
Even if the Milgram Experiment doesn’t provide proof that an ordinary person can follow directions and turn into an accomplice in crime, it shows our vulnerability to follow instructions from people in authority. So next time you hear advice from an expert, you can blindly apply what you heard or you can pause for a moment to tweak the advice for yourself.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371–378. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0040525
Mcleod, S. (n.d.). The Milgram Shock Experiment. Milgram Experiment | Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html.
Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, May 19). Milgram experiment. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.