If you were searching for evidence of the essential goodness of humanity, you probably wouldn’t go looking in Stanley Milgram’s experiments.
Milgram’s famous shock experiments were conducted at Yale University between 1960 and 1963, when he was a member of the Department of Psychology. Like so many people who had been horrified by the revelations that came during World War II, Milgram was interested in the capacity of normal people to commit brutal acts, especially under orders. His experiments were designed to explore that capacity, and his findings, which have become notorious, were, and are, disquieting.
In those experiments, subjects were told that they were participating in a learning trial, a word-recall task. They and another volunteer (secretly a confederate of the experimenter, a plant) drew lots: the game was rigged, and the subject always drew the role of the ‘teacher’, and the confederate the role of the ‘student’. The student was seated out of sight of the teacher, who would read word pairings to him. Whenever the student recalled a pairing incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to give him one in a series of escalating shocks. The experimenter looked on, directing and encouraging the teacher.
The teacher administered the shocks from a shock generator with switches which generated voltages from 15 to 450 volts. In order to drive the point home, these switches were labelled in groups designated Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger: Severe Shock, and XXX (editorial sidenote: ‘XXX’? Really? ‘XXX’ should have been a dead giveaway that there was funny business going on with this experiment).
The student, who in reality received no shocks at all and who answered incorrectly deliberately, expressed escalating discomfort, claimed a heart condition, begged to be released, screamed in agony, and finally fell silent and stopped responding in any way. If the teacher expressed reservations, or tried to stop the experiment, the experimenter instructed him to continue, insisting if necessary, and assured the teacher that the student was perfectly safe and that the experiment was under control, even while the student screamed that he was having heart pain. Even when he went silent.
Most of the subjects expressed distress at what they were doing. They asked to stop, tried to insist. However, only a minority actually stopped. In Milgram’s original experiment, 65% of his 40 experimental subjects obeyed the experimenter and shocked the student to the maximum 450 volts. These were clearly labelled lethal levels of shock, and 65% of normal volunteers continued to shock a screaming, begging man to the end.
And that was the message that most people took away from Milgram’s study. The New York Times wrote, in 1963, “A study at Yale University to assess the extent of such blind obedience found that an unexpectedly large proportion of a test population would follow orders, even if they could see that they were inflicting severe pain.”
But Milgram’s studies were more complicated, nuanced, and thorough than most people realize. In 1974, Milgram published his complete experiments and analysis in his book ‘Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View’. The picture of our nature which emerges from that work is murkier than the New York Times supposed.
Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, by Stanley Milgram.