Stanley Milgram and ‘Obedience to Authority’ – Part 2


See Part 1: Shock

As the title of his book suggests, Milgram believed that, when his subjects shocked the screaming students, they were not acting out of sadism – they were responding to the authority of the experimenter, backed as he was by the authority of Yale, of higher education, of class, of science.  That authority both allowed the subjects to believe that the experiment was always under control, and that they were not ultimately responsible for the outcome.

To test that hypothesis, Milgram tried two experimental manipulations (actually, he tried many, but there are two I want to focus on here).  In the first, a third experimental subject (also a confederate) was introduced.  Milgram called this new figure the ‘common man’.  In this new scenario, the experimenter left the room on a pretense, and left the ‘common man’ in the role of overseer.  Once alone, the common man shared a neat idea he’d had: to escalate the level of shock every time the student got an answer wrong.

Milgram Common Man

The common man made all the same arguments that the experimenter made in previous iterations of the experiment; the only difference was his lack of perceived authority.  Milgram found that, when the common man gave the order to shock the student, the teacher was dramatically less likely to comply.  Obedience fell from the baseline 65% to 20%.

In the second experimental permutation, through a ruse, the experimenter himself was put in the student’s chair, ostensibly to demonstrate to the reluctant volunteer-student that the procedure was safe.  He instructed the teacher to increase the shock every time he, the experimenter/student, answered incorrectly.  And then he began to answer incorrectly.

Milgram Experiment:Student Sole Authority

In that experiment, the moment the experimenter/student expressed discomfort, every single teacher immediately stopped the shocks and refused to proceed.

“At the first protest of the shocked experimenter, every single subject broke off, refusing to administer even a single shock beyond this point.  There is no variation whatsoever in response…Many subjects explained their prompt response on humane grounds, not recognizing the authority aspect of the situation,

Apparently, it is more gratifying for the subjects to see their action as stemming from personal kindness than to acknowledge that they were simply following the boss’s orders.  When asked what they would do if a common man were being shocked, these subjects vehemently denied that they would continue beyond the point where the victim protests.”

However, that unanimous refusal to obey only happened when the experimenter/student was the sole experimental authority.  Milgram then put two experimenters in the room, and had them pretend that the second volunteer was a no-show.  The two experimenters, in full sight of the teacher-to-be, decided that it was better to run the experiment with one of them as the student than to fail to meet their experimental quota.  They then flipped a coin, the loser took the student’s chair, and the experiment proceeded as per usual.

Milgram Experiment:Student

Milgram found that when an authority instructed the teacher to deliver a shock, even when the victim of the shock was another authority, the teacher complied.

“The experimenter, strapped into the electric chair, fares no better than a victim who is not an authority at all…In total he is no better treated than an ordinary person in the same situation.”

Next week, Part 3: Optimism.

Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, by Stanley Milgram.

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