Would Good People Kill?

Nadia M.

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It is no doubt that many of us are generally obedient to authority figures, like our teachers, parents, and police officers – but how far does this obedience go?


Stanley Milgram wondered the same question, perhaps inspired by the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, whose defense in the case was that he was merely following orders. In 1961, he created an experiment that would finally answer our burning questions – and the results were absolutely shocking.


The Teacher-Learner Experiment


Milgram conducted the experiment at Yale University, where he recruited forty individuals through misleading newspaper advertisements that promised a study focused on “memory and learning.” In reality, the goal of the study was to answer questions regarding obedience to authority. The participants were informed that one person would take the role of a student and another would take the role of a teacher, with roles chosen randomly. Each person drew a supposedly random sheet of paper stating which role they would take – but the roles were already prepared. All participants would be the teachers, and the students in the experiment would be actors Milgram hired. Thus, all of the clueless participants were intentionally given the role of the teachers, while believing it to be a random assignment.


Each participant “teacher” was paired with one of the actors, or ”students.” The teacher watched as the student was strapped to a chair and had electrodes attached to him by laboratory assistants. Following that, the teacher was then brought into a separate room, where he and the student could still communicate but not actually see each other. The teacher was placed in front of a shock generator that started at 30 volts and increased by 15 volts each time, all the way to 450 volts. The shock generator’s switches were labeled “Moderate,” which was 75-120 volts; “Strong,”  which was 135-180 volts; “Danger: Severe Shock,” which was 375-420 volts; and the two highest levels were labeled “XXX.” Although the “teachers” were not aware of this, the shock generator didn’t actually produce shocks, and instead only made a noise when the switches were pressed.


The teacher was told he would teach word pairs to the student and that if the student made a mistake, he would punish the student by administering a shock. As the number of mistakes rose, so did the intensity of the shocks (growing by 15 volts per mistake). To convince the teacher that the experiment was real, the teacher himself was given a 15 volt shock – which was the only real shock generated throughout the entire test. After the word pairings task began, the student eventually made errors. However, these errors were entirely planned. When the fake shocks reached 75 volts, the student grunted. At 120 volts the student complained that the shocks were painful. At 150 volts, the student screamed and begged for release. And as the shocks grew more intense, so did the complaining. At times, the teacher would question the experiment – but when this occured, the experimenter would respond with “it is absolutely essential that you continue,” or “you have no other choice, you must go on.” At 300 volts, the student pounded on the walls and exclaimed that the pain was absolutely unbearable. At 330 volts, the student remained silent. The experimenter informed the teacher that the lack of response was an incorrect answer, and as a result, the student must be shocked again. The experiment ended when the highest level on the shock generator was reached.

The experiment was conducted on forty men – and when Milgram gathered all forty results, the findings were absolutely horrifying.


Milgram’s Findings


Milgram asked a group of Yale students to predict how many people they thought would administer the maximum shock level, and they estimated only 3% would do it. Unfortunately, this estimated percentage was nowhere near the actual result.

Surprisingly, Milgram discovered that 65% of the participants of the study reached shock levels of 450 volts – and all participants reached at least 300 volts! While people did express signs of internal struggle through groaning, nervous laughter, and trembling, most of them obeyed the experimenter’s request to continue with the experiment. When interviewed after the experiment, Milgram asked the participants to rate how painful they believed the shocks actually were, and most responses went along the lines of “extremely painful.” Milgram even found that participants, in an attempt to justify their behavior, devalued the student during the experiment, claiming that the student was so dumb that he actually deserved the shocks. Milgram was able to successfully prove that under certain circumstances, everyday people who are considered “normal” could cause intense pain and suffering if ordered by authority figures. He was able to explain such high levels of obedience in the following ways:


– Compliance was increased because of the physical presence of an authority figure (experimenter)

– Many people believed the experiment was safe because it was sponsored by Yale

–  The selection process of who would be the teacher and who would be the student appeared to be random

– It was assured that the experimenter was a competent expert

– The participants were told the shocks were painful but not dangerous


Stanley Milgram also ran an experiment in which participants witnessed another teacher dissent and end the experiment – well, the results were much less disturbing. The visible presence of others disobeying the authority figure reduced the level of obedience to 10%.


The Problem With The Study


Stanley Milgram’s teacher-learner experiment sparked controversy for a reason. Not only did Milgram’s experiment inevitably raise ethical concerns, but it raised concerns regarding validity, too. Regarding ethical issues, the participants were deceived into believing they were hurting another human being and were unaware that the learner was an actor. However, Milgram argued that “illusion is used when necessary in order to set the stage for the revelation of certain difficult-to-get-at-truths.” Milgram also interviewed participants after the experiment to see how the experiment affected them. Apparently, 83.7% said they were “glad to be in the experiment,” and only 1.3% said they regretted volunteering. Additionally, the participants were greatly stressed by the experiment, and the fact that they believed they were hurting a complete stranger could have traumatized them. Milgram argued these effects were only temporary. Once the participants realized the student was okay, their stress levels decreased. Milgram also debriefed the participants fully after the experiment and made sure they came to no harm. Participants were assured their behavior was common and Milgram also followed the sample up a year later to find there were no indicators of any long-term psychological damage. Regarding validity issues, Milgram’s experiment was biased – the only participants involved were men. It is uncertain whether the same levels of obedience apply to females. Milgram’s sample was also also self-selected. Not all people responded to the newspaper, and the individuals who volunteered for the experiment may have shared a certain personality type that led to higher obedience levels.


Below is a short audio clip of Stanley Milgram’s experiment:




So, now that you know just how far our obedience to authority can go (to the point where we would torture and possibly murder!), what do you think you would do? Would you be like the majority, or would you take a stand?




Psych 101 by Paul Kleinman