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Why is it so many people obey when they feel coerced? Social psychologist Stanley Milgram researched the effect of authority on obedience. He concluded people obey either out of fear or out of a desire to appear cooperative--even when acting against their own better judgment and desires. Milgram’s classic yet controversial experiment illustrates people's reluctance to confront those who abuse power. It is my opinion that Milgram's book should be required reading (see References below) for anyone in supervisory or management positions.
Milgram recruited subjects for his experiments from various walks in life. Respondents were told the experiment would study the effects of punishment on learning ability. They were offered a token cash award for participating. Although respondents thought they had an equal chance of playing the role of a student or of a teacher, the process was rigged so all respondents ended up playing the teacher. The learner was an actor working as a cohort of the experimenter.
"Teachers" were asked to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to the "learner" when questions were answered incorrectly. In reality, the only electric shocks delivered in the experiment were single 45-volt shock samples given to each teacher. This was done to give teachers a feeling for the jolts they thought they would be discharging.
Shock levels were labeled from 15 to 450 volts. Besides the numerical scale, verbal anchors added to the frightful appearance of the instrument. Beginning from the lower end, jolt levels were labeled: "slight shock," "moderate shock," "strong shock," "very strong shock," "intense shock," and "extreme intensity shock." The next two anchors were "Danger: Severe Shock," and, past that, a simple but ghastly "XXX."
In response to the supposed jolts, the "learner" (actor) would begin to grunt at 75 volts; complain at 120 volts; ask to be released at 150 volts; plead with increasing vigor, next; and let out agonized screams at 285 volts. Eventually, in desperation, the learner was to yell loudly and complain of heart pain.
At some point the actor would refuse to answer any more questions. Finally, at 330 volts the actor would be totally silent-that is, if any of the teacher participants got so far without rebelling first.
Teachers were instructed to treat silence as an incorrect answer and apply the next shock level to the student.
If at any point the innocent teacher hesitated to inflict the shocks, the experimenter would pressure him to proceed. Such demands would take the form of increasingly severe statements, such as "The experiment requires that you continue."
What do you think was the average voltage given by teachers before they refused to administer further shocks? What percentage of teachers, if any, do you think went up to the maximum voltage of 450?
Results from the experiment. Some teachers refused to continue with the shocks early on, despite urging from the experimenter. This is the type of response Milgram expected as the norm. But Milgram was shocked to find those who questioned authority were in the minority. Sixty-five percent (65%) of the teachers were willing to progress to the maximum voltage level.
Participants demonstrated a range of negative emotions about continuing. Some pleaded with the learner, asking the actor to answer questions carefully. Others started to laugh nervously and act strangely in diverse ways. Some subjects appeared cold, hopeless, somber, or arrogant. Some thought they had killed the learner. Nevertheless, participants continued to obey, discharging the full shock to learners. One man who wanted to abandon the experiment was told the experiment must continue. Instead of challenging the decision of the experimenter, he proceeded, repeating to himself, "It’s got to go on, it’s got to go on."
Milgram’s experiment included a number of variations. In one, the learner was not only visible but teachers were asked to force the learner’s hand to the shock plate so they could deliver the punishment. Less obedience was extracted from subjects in this case. In another variation, teachers were instructed to apply whatever voltage they desired to incorrect answers. Teachers averaged 83 volts, and only 2.5 percent of participants used the full 450 volts available. This shows most participants were good, average people, not evil individuals. They obeyed only under coercion.
In general, more submission was elicited from "teachers" when (1) the authority figure was in close proximity; (2) teachers felt they could pass on responsibility to others; and (3) experiments took place under the auspices of a respected organization.
Participants were debriefed after the experiment and showed much relief at finding they had not harmed the student. One cried from emotion when he saw the student alive, and explained that he thought he had killed him. But what was different about those who obeyed and those who rebelled? Milgram divided participants into three categories:
Obeyed but justified themselves. Some obedient participants gave up responsibility for their actions, blaming the experimenter. If anything had happened to the learner, they reasoned, it would have been the experimenter’s fault. Others had transferred the blame to the learner: "He was so stupid and stubborn he deserved to be shocked."
Obeyed but blamed themselves. Others felt badly about what they had done and were quite harsh on themselves. Members of this group would, perhaps, be more likely to challenge authority if confronted with a similar situation in the future.
Rebelled. Finally, rebellious subjects questioned the authority of the experimenter and argued there was a greater ethical imperative calling for the protection of the learner over the needs of the experimenter. Some of these individuals felt they were accountable to a higher authority.
Why were those who challenged authority in the minority? So entrenched is obedience it may void personal codes of conduct.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row. An excellent presentation of Milgram’s work is also found in Brown, R. (1986). Social Forces in Obedience and Rebellion. Social Psychology: The Second Edition. New York: The Free Press.
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Table of Contents
Stanley Milgram on Obedience to AuthorityStanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted a study focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.
The results of the study were made known in Milgram's Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974).
So-called "teachers" (who were actually the unknowing subjects of the experiment) were recruited by Milgram in response to a newspaper ad offering $4.00 for one hour's work.
(The purchasing power of $4.50 at that time amounted to some 14 loaves of bread or 22 beers).
In preparing to conduct his Study of Obedience Experiments Milgram selected 40 male volunteers who had responded to this advert for persons willing to participate in a Study of Memory.
The 40 who were chosen were selected to vary in age, educational attainment, and occupation to give an overall sample that was somewhat representative of the general population.
Individual subjects thus recruited turned up to take part in a Psychology experiment investigating memory and learning at Linsly-Chittenden Hall, (pictured left), on Yale University's old campus. He introduced to a stern looking experimenter in a white coat and to a rather pleasant and friendly co-subject who was also presumably recruited via the same newspaper ad. The experimenter explained that one subject would be assigned the role of "teacher" and the other would be assigned the role of "learner."
Two slips of paper marked "teacher" were handed to the subject and to the co-subject. The co-subject was actually an actor who, in posing as a subject to the experiment, subsequently claimed that his slip said "learner" such that the unknowing subject was inevitably led to believe that his role as "teacher" had been chosen randomly.
Both learner and teacher were then given a sample 45-volt electric shock from an apparatus attached to a chair into which the "actor-learner" was to be strapped. The fictitious story given to the "teachers" was that the experiment was intended to explore the effects of punishment for incorrect responses on learning behavior.
A succession of unknowing subjects in their roles as teacher were given simple memory tasks in the form of reading lists of two word pairs and asking the "learner" to read them back and were instructed to administer a shock by pressing a button each time the learner made a mistake. It was understood that the electric shocks were to be of increased by 15 volts in intensity for each mistake the "learner" made during the experiment.
The shock generator that the "teacher" was told to operate had 30 switches in 15 volt increments, each switch was labeled with a voltage ranging from 15 up to 450 volts. Each switch also had a rating, ranging from "slight shock" to "danger: severe shock". The final two switches being labelled "XXX".
The text to the top left of Milgram's Shock Box reads:-
SHOCK GENERATOR, TYPE ZLB.
DYSON INSTRUMENT COMPANY,
The display indicated a shock output range of from 15 VOLTS - to - 450 VOLTS.
The above image is rather blurred so the following tabular data may be more convenient for gaining an appreciation of the range of controls at the "Teacher's" disposal and as he or she acted under the implied authority of the experimenter.
Shock levels indicated during the Milgram Obedience Experiments
Shock Range Labelling Electric Shocks simulated
Slight Shock15 30, 45, 60 volts
Moderate Shock75 90. 105, 120 volts
Strong Shock135 150, 165, 180 volts
Very Strong Shock 195, 210, 225, 240 volts
Note the change from black to red text as the console display moves from :-
Very Strong Shock to Intense Shock and higher
Intense Shock 255, 270, 285, 300 volts
Extreme Intensity Shock 315, 330, 345, 360 volts
Danger: Severe Shock 375, 390, 405, 420 volts
and finally - XXX 435, 450 volts
The experiment was conducted in a scenario where the "learner" was in another room but the "teacher" was made aware of the "actor-learner's" discomfort by poundings on the wall.
No further shocks were actually delivered - the "teacher" was not aware that the "learner" in the study was actually an actor who was intended, by the requirements of the experiment, to use his talents to indicate increasing levels of discomfort as the "teacher" administered increasingly severe electric shocks in response to the mistakes made by the "learner".
The experimenter was present in the same room as the "teacher" and whenever "teachers" asked whether increased shocks should be given he or she was verbally encouraged by the experimenter to continue.
These encouragements were, in fact, pre-scripted by the research team and followed this pattern:-
Prod 1: Please continue or Please go on.
Prod 2: The experiment requires that you continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice, you must go on.
These Prods were to be deployed successively by the researchers - a higher number Prod could only be used if a lower number one had proved unsuccessful.
Each experimental session was terminated whenever Prod 4 failed to induce the "teacher" to continue administering electric shocks. In this scenario 65% of the "teachers" obeyed orders to punish the learner to the very end of the 450-volt scale! No subject stopped before reaching 300 volts!
At times, the worried "teachers" questioned the experimenter, asking who was responsible for any harmful effects resulting from shocking the learner at such a high level. Upon receiving the answer that the experimenter assumed full responsibility, teachers seemed to accept the response and continue shocking, even though some were obviously extremely uncomfortable in doing so.
In an article entitled "The Perils of Obedience" (1974) Stanley Milgram wrote:-
"Before the experiments, I sought predictions about the outcome from various kinds of people -- psychiatrists, college sophomores, middle-class adults, graduate students and faculty in the behavioral sciences. With remarkable similarity, they predicted that virtually all the subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter. The psychiatrist, specifically, predicted that most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts, when the victim makes his first explicit demand to be freed. They expected that only 4 percent would reach 300 volts, and that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board".
The Obedience to Authority experiment was continued by Milgram over a number of other scenarios such as where the "learner" could indicate discomfort by way of voice feedback - at "150 volts", the "actor-learner" requested that the experiment end, and was consistently told by the experimenter that - "The experiment requires that you continue. Please go on." or similar words. In this scenarion the percentage of subjects who were prepared to administer the maximum 450 volts dropped slightly to 62.5%
Where the experiment was conducted in a nondescript office building rather than within the walls of a prestigiously ornate hall on Yale's old campus the percentage of subjects who were prepared to administer the maximum voltage dropped to 47.5%.
Where the "teacher" had to physically place the "learner's" hand on a "shock plate" in order to give him shocks above 150 volts the percentage of subjects who were prepared to administer the maximum voltage dropped to 30.0% and where the "experimenter" was at end of a phone line rather than being in the same room the percentage of subjects who were prepared to administer 450 volts dropped to 20.5% and where the "teacher" could himself nominate the shock level the percentage of subjects who were prepared to continue to the end of the scale dropped to 2.5%
Milgram summed up his findings in relation to the main experiment in "The Perils of Obedience" (1974):-
"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."
Some doubt has been cast on the scientific validity of Milgram's published findings by a journalist named Gina Perry who reviewed the extensive archives relating to the experiment and interviewed some of the surviving participants.
She found that whilst Milgram's originally published article mentioned some forty participants, of which some twenty-six proved to be obedient, some seven hundred naive participants were actually "tested" in various experimental scenarios with varying results as to their "obedience".
Some of those being tested reported doubts about the credibility of the scenario they were involved in - voice feedback from "punished" learners seeming to come from a loudspeaker high on a wall rather than from a slightly open door to a room where they were given to understand the "learner" was.
Others seemed to sense that they - as teachers - were under the close scrutiny of the experimenter rather than the learner.
There were instances of the experimenter going beyond the stated four pre-scripted encouragement prompts to the point of being a degree of harassment or bullying in efforts to ensure obedience.
It has also been pointed out that in the original Yale University scenario "teachers" could see themselves as being under the moral guidance of a scientifically qualified employee of a respected academic institution and to take decisive cues from the "experimenters" evident impassivity in the face of the "learners" protests.
The Milgram Obedience Experiments scenario was given a high-profile repetition on a French documentary about the effects of reality TV as first aired on a french state TV channel in March 2010.
Check out this web page:-
The Milgram Obedience Experiment
French reality TV show - The Game of Death
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