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?