A book written by Stanley Milgram detailing the implications of a famous experiment of his which has since been outlawed.

The experiment was carried out (roughly) as follows: Subject A is handed a list of words, and told to read designated pairs of words to Subject B, who is situated in an adjacent room. At specific intervals, Subject A quizzes Subject B by reading back one of the words, and asking Subject B to name the word it was paired with. Subject B is strapped into a device which looks remarkably similar to an electric chair, and harnessed down so that he is unable to move. Subject A is separated from him by a wall of glass, and in front of him is an electric box, with a dial and a button on top of it. Each time that Subject B makes a mistake, Subject A is told to press the button, administering an electric shock to Subject B, and then turn the dial up a notch, increasing the voltage that will be applied the next time Subject B errs. The range runs between 15 and 450 volts. Subject A is told that the experiment is being conducted to gauge how well people are able to learn and retain information under fear of physical pain. A man dressed in a lab coat and looking like a genuine scientist stands behind Subject A and marks down results on a clipboard.

What Subject A does not know is that Subject B is actually a trained actor, and is never given any electrical shock at all. However, as Subject A progressively increases the "voltage" being applied to him, Subject B very realistically starts to scream in pain, and complain that he does not want to participate in the experiment anymore. The real purpose behind the experiment is to see to what degree Subject A will act cruelly towards another human in the name of the greater good, Science. As Subject B starts to complain, Subject A will begin to ask the scientist standing behind him if he can stop the experiment, or at least turn the voltage back down. When this happens, the scientist very simply states "The experiment must go on", or tells Subject A that "There will be no permanent tissue damage." He never makes any attempt to physically restrain Subject A, and there is an unlocked door through which Subject A can exit at any time. Most of the time, however, the subject only needs to be told few times that he has no choice before he turns around and begins to administer the experiment again, in spite of the actor's anguished pleas.

At some future date, I'll try and look up some of the figures on how long it took most people to give up and leave, but the point is that the average Joe is quite ready to give up his morals and beliefs about being cruel to other human beings when being commanded even minimally by an authority figure. The experiment was conducted around the time that a number of veteran Nazis were being held on trial for the atrocities they committed in concentration camps during WWII, and somewhat backed up their claims that they were simply following orders, and could not be held personally responsible for the actions of the Nazi Party.

Kevin Smith seems to disagree with this idea; in Clerks, the character Randall tries to convince Dante that position doesn't dictate behavior, and individuals are responsible for their own behavior in all circumstances. Go read the book and watch the movie again, and come to your own conclusions.

Stanley Milgram's famous experiment happened thusly: The "teacher," who found out about the experiment from an ad that promised $4.50, and the "learner," who was a trained actor, both sat in a lobby until the experiment began. The experimenter entered the lobby in a lab coat, and identified himself as Dr. Suchorother. He told them that they were to be part of an experiment in the effects of punishment on learning. He then gave each of the two a rolled up piece of paper, one of which said TEACHER and the other LEARNER, as appropriate. The two were then led into the control room, in which the electrocution apparatus was set up.

The rules were explained: The teacher would begin by read off a list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read from another list, which had the first word of the pair followed by four choices. The learner would respond by pressing one of four buttons, depending on the choice he thought was correct, and the appropriate lamp would light in a box visible to the teacher. If the learner's response was correct, the teacher would proceed to the next pair. If the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to press down one of the thirty switches marked from 15 to 450 volts. The switches were constructed so that once pressed, they remained partially down (but without current), so the teacher could tell how far he had gone. A scale along the bottom of the switches read: "Slight Shock ---- Moderate Shock ---- Strong Shock ---- Very Strong Shock ---- Intense Shock ---- Extreme Intensity Shock ---- Danger: Severe Shock ---- XXX"

The teacher and learner were both given a 45 volt shock, so they would know what they were in for. The teachers often mentioned that the test shock was very painful. After this, the teacher and learner were both led to the walled off area. The learner was strapped to a chair ("To prevent unnecessary movement," the experimenter said), and electrode jelly and electrodes were attached to his arm. The learner was shown how to push the four buttons, and his restraints loosened enough to allow it. The teacher was then led back to the control room, the door was closed, the experimenter sat down in a chair near the teacher, and the experiment began.

At 75 volts, the learner starts grunting and saying things like "ouch." At 120 volts, the learner states that the shocks are becoming painful. At 150 volts, he asks to leave, and states that he refuses to go on. These protests continue, and if the teacher questions the procedure, he is told things like: "no tissue damage is being done," "he is being paid to complete the experiment," "the experiment depends on your continuing compliance," and even "you have no choice." It should be noted that the door between the control room and the lobby is visibly unlocked. The teacher also points out that if, after four or five seconds, there is no response, or a refusal to answer, it is to be counted as a failure by the learner, and a shock is to be administered.

At 250 volts there is no response from the learner except abject screaming. At 300 volts, the learner begins banging on the wall with his chair. At 330 volts there is no response at all, screaming or otherwise. The experimenter instructs the teacher to continue until 450 volts is reached, at which point he stops the experiment.

The teacher was then debriefed about the real intent of the experiment, and led to see the "learner" who was, of course, still alive. In his book, Dr. Milgram described one of the teachers thusly: "I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and confident. Within 20 minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck, who was rapidly approaching nervous collapse. He constantly pulled on his ear lobe, and twisted his hands. At one point he pushed his fist into his forehead and muttered ' Oh God, let's stop it '. And yet he continued to respond to every word of the experimenter, and obeyed to the end."

The result of the experiment were: 100 percent of the test subjects complied long enough to push the voltage to or above 300 volts. 65 percent of the test subjects went up all the way to 450 volts without walking out. 65 percent! In follow-up studies conducted in a non-clinical environment, 48 percent went to 450. If the learner was in the same room as the teacher, 40 percent complied. If the teacher was separated from the experimenter and got no enforcement, the rate was 22 percent.

This experiment was conducted at Yale in the early 60s when ethical standards were a bit, uh, looser than they are today. It was verified with a number of experiments in other places, such as Princeton, Munich, Rome, South Africa, and Australia, and the percentage of teachers who pushed past the point of no response was the same or higher in every one. Experiments were done in inner city and rural areas. The Munich experiment had the highest rate, with 85 percent of the teachers obedient.

The lesson you should learn from Milgram's experiment is this: People, if in the position of obeying an authority figure in an appropriate environment, will severely hurt, and probably kill, another person. This is true of everybody. Not just your least favorite minority or majority group. Not just members of the opposite sex. Not just religious extremists or ethnic cleansers. Everybody. You. Pretty scary stuff, no?

The Impact of Milgram's Obedience Studies on Social Psychology

The detached, objective manner in which Milgram reports the emotional disturbance suffered by his subject contrasts sharply with his graphic account of that disturbance. (Baumrind 1964)

Milgram's study used a design to match the significance of the question under investigation. It incorporated an imaginative and innovative experimental design, one that bordered on compelling theater. However, both the importance of the question and the creativity of the design would have been quickly forgotten had the study not produced such dramatic findings, a level of obedience that no one had predicted.. (Benjamin, 1998, p. 17)

The Controversey of Milgram's Study

Between 1960 and 1963, Stanley Milgram conducted a study to determine the effect of authority on compliance. His method was simple: a volunteer, told that he was participating in a teaching study, was instructed to administer a word quiz to another subject designated as a learner. Whenever the learner gave an incorrect answer on the quiz, the subject was instructed to administer an electric shock to him, and each successive shock increased in intensity. Unbeknownst to the subject, the learner was an actor, who feigned rapidly escalating pain with each shock. When the subject asked the experimenter if the study should be terminated because of the learner's cries for mercy, the experimenter calmly instructed him to continue. Milgram recorded how many subjects refused to continue the experiment, and the manner in which they did. Several variations of this experiment were conducted: one placed the subject in a different room than the learner, in another the subject was seated next to him. In one scenario, the subject was able to communicate with the learner over a speakerphone connected to a different room; 62.5% of the subjects in this setup administered the maximum shock voltage, despite pleads (and finally a grim silence) from the learner (Milgram, 2009, p. 35). The data from the obedience study have been widely referenced in both academia and pop culture. Jerry Burger of Santa Carla University, who recently replicated the experiment, called it "arguably the most well-known social psychological research inside or outside the field" (Burger, p. 1).

The study was controversial from the moment it was published (Milgram, 2009, p. xiv). Milgram was interested in reproducing the conditions for obedience that enable systematic murder and subjection to impersonal authority figures (2009, p. 137). In the preface he questions, "whether there is any connection between what we have studied in the laboratory and the forms of obedience we so deplored in the Nazi epic" (2009, p. xx). Attempting to re-create similar conditions in a lab setting, his volunteers were instructed to harm another person by an incontestable authority. Some subjects experienced great anxiety, and he observed "extreme levels of nervous tension in some Ss. Profuse sweating, trembling, and stuttering were typical expressions of this emotional disturbance" (Benjamin, 2009, p. 14). Because of ethical concerns the experiment raised, many studies that replicated Milgram's followed were drastically modified to protect the subjects from extreme distress (Burger, p. 2). Milgram's study is both illuminating and controversial; it is difficult to say if the study's contested treatment of subjects is justified by its academic value.

It may be argued that Milgram's experiments were not necessary at all, because the information they provided can be observed outside the lab. This is a compelling counterpoint to the idea that the study's usefulness excuses Milgram's method. He acknowledged that the influence of an authority can be seen in "facts of recent history and observation in daily life" (Milgram, 2009, p. 1). However, by conducting an empirical study of obedience under authority, Milgram achieved more than merely confirming a common observation. He provided a documented unprecedented instance of a ubiquitous social phenomenon. He created a solid analogy by which human action could be examined and understood--whether it be in a lab, during a war, or under a fascist regime.

Milgram's Impetus

In the paper The Impact of Milgram's Obedience Studies on Personality and Social Psychology, Benjamin and Simpson note that Milgram's studies represented changing attitudes in social psychology. During the 1950s, many studies focused on "internalistic" explanations, which placed a heavy emphasis on individuals' personalities and temperaments: ..several large-scale research projects were seeking to determine whether 'personality types' might help us understand and explain why certain people committed some of the atrocities witnessed during World War II)" (Benjamin, 2009, p. 16).

Benjamin and Simpson cite the legthly and substantial study Authoritarian Personality as an example. Authoritarian consists of five volumes of research directed by the Department of Scientific Research, established by the American Jewish Comittee (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950, p. vi). The work compares the different anti-semitism attitudes of over a thousand Americans (Adorno et al, 1950, p. 21). The research contains excruciating detail of these subjects' political views, ideology, religion, intelligence, criminality, and genetics (Adorno et al, 1950, p. 9). They provide a table of "Anti-semitism Subscale Attitudes", with items ranging from "In order to maintain a nice residential neightborhood it is best to prevent Jews from living it in" to "The Jewish problem is so general and deep that one often doubts that democratic methods can ever solve it" (Adorno et al, 1950, p. 65). These attempts at constructing a typology for anti-semetics sought to find some way of connecting a soldier's personality and background with his propensity to identify with the Nazis when obliged (Benjamin, 2009, p. 16).

But Milgram refused this explanation that was based on individuals' characteristics. When he asked his subjects why they obeyed the experimenter's instruction long after the learner begged for it to end, they typically replied, "I wouldn't have done it by myself. I was just doing what I was told" (Milgram, 2009, p. 8). This response shows disconnect between the subjects' personal ethics and their actions. Does this mean their reply is a baseless alibi to pardon immoral conduct? Milgram says that this response, "that was heard time and time again in the defense statements of those accused at Nuremberg" (Milgram, 2009, p. 8), is a legitimate justification. In Obedience to Authority, Milgram hardly acknowledges the effect of personal qualities on compliance to a given situation. He uses the prase agenic state to describe a person who circumstantially acts as an agent to an authority figure. Milgram disregards the intricacy of the Authoritarian Personality research in favour of his explanation of agency:

Although a person acting under authority performs actions that seem to violate standards of conscience, it would not be true to say that he loses his moral sense ... Rather, his moral concern now shifts to a consideration of how well he is living up to the expectations that the authority has of him. (Milgram, 2009, p. 8)
Benjamin and Simpson describe this theory as a "powerful demonstration that 'strong' situations can and sometimes do overwhelm personality variables" (Benjamin, 2009, p. 16). Volumes of personality typology could not provide as much help as Milgram's concept of agenic states.

Applying Agency

Christopher Browning's book Ordinary Men tells the story of a German police battalion which was ordered by the Third Reich to "resettle" thousands of Polish civilians toward central Poland-- away from the western region annexed by Germany (p. 38-39). In the summer of 1942, the battalion's leader ordered them to relocate all abled-body men in the village of Józefów southward. This meant the battalion was to execute all women, children, and elderly of the 1,800 Jews living there (2009, p. 55). They encircled the village in the forest surrounding it, so that they were able to catch those that fled, and execute them on the spot (2009, p. 57). The police obeyed, but with some reservation. The commanding officer avoided the forest—the site of the executions—instead staying away in his office and in the village. One policeman commented,

Major Trapp was never there. Instead he remained in Józefów because he allegedly could not bear the sight. We men were upset about that and said we couldn't bear it either. (Browning, 1998, p. 58)

After executing three Jews at point-blank range, one policeman intentionally misfired away from his next target. He then ran into the woods away from the execution site and vomited, remaining there for some hours before returning (Browning, 1998, p. 67-68). Many of his comrades simply refused their orders, which went unnoticed due poor coordination of the operation (Browning, 1998, p. 65-66). One decided to withdraw after conversing with a mother her daughter who were to be executed (Browning, 1998, p. 67).

Through these recollections taken from first-hand accounts, Browning successfully portrays the policemen not as inhuman brutes, but people with common ethics and morals. But if not inherently misguided agents, what else could have driven one police battalion to successfully murder hundreds of Jews? Browning cites Milgram's experiments to explain this moral anomaly:

If the multifaceted nature of authority at Józefów and the key role of conformity among the policemen are not quite parallel to Milgram's experiments, they nonetheless render considerable support to his conclusions, and some of his observation are clearly confirmed. Direct proximity to the horror of the killing significantly increased the number of men who would no longer comply. On the other hand, with the division of labor and removal of the killing process to the death camps, the men felt scarcely any responsibility at all for their actions. (1998, p. 176)


Personality typology could not have explained Browning's research as eloquently as Milgram's explanations. Through his studies, Milgram provided an innovative approach to considering human behaviour as situation-dependent. He does not dismiss the importance of an individual's psychology on their action, but suggests that other conditions are equally important. As Browning's research on a German police battalion indicates, Milgram's ideas are of great value. Although the concept of conditional submission to authority has long been observed outside of psychological studies, its confirmation and drastic influence was lucidly demonstrated in the Obedience to Authority study. The question of whether it was ethically justified, however, remains a separate debate.

Works Cited

Adorno, T. W., Else Frenkel-Brinswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper & Brother, 1950. Print.

Baumrind, Diana. "Some Thoughts on the Ethics of Research: After Reading Milgram's "Behavioral Study of Obedience"" AP 19: 421-23. Web.

Benjamin, Jr., L. T., and J. A. Simpson. "The Power of the Situation: The Impact of Milgram's Obedience Studies on Personality and Social Psychology." AP 64(1) (2009): 12-19. Print.

Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998. Print.

Burger, J. M. "Replicating Milgram: Would People Still Obey Today?" AP 64(1): 1-11. Print. Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority. Haper Perennial, 2009. Print.

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