Stanley Milgram and ‘Obedience to Authority’ – Part 3


See Part 1: Shock, and Part 2: Pessimism.

The assumption that informed all of Milgram’s experiments was that his experimental subjects weren’t naturally malicious, and wouldn’t shock another volunteer of their own volition.  He had ample evidence in the reactions of his subjects, in their reluctance and anguish.

And he demonstrated it directly.  In one experimental permutation, Milgram had the experimenter instruct the teacher, from another room, via a telephone.  The set-up and the instructions were identical – the experimenter insisted just as strenuously on escalating the level of shock.  The only difference was the physical absence of the lead investigator.  When he was out of sight, the percentage of subjects who were obedient to the maximum level of shock fell from 65% to 20%.

“Moreover, when the experimenter was absent, subjects displayed an interesting form of behavior that had not occurred under his surveillance.  Though continuing with the experiment, several subjects administered lower shocks than were required and never informed the experimenter of their deviation from the correct procedure.  Indeed, in telephone conversations some subjects specifically assured the experimenter that they were raising the shock level according to instruction, while, in reality, they repeatedly used the lowest shock on the board.”

Then Milgram tried something interesting: he gave the teacher two peers, also secretly confederates of the experimenter, who would refuse to deliver shocks when the student expressed discomfort.  The confederate teachers would move to the other side of the room, saying things like, “I’m willing to answer any of your questions, but I’m not willing to shock that man against his will.  I’ll have no part of it.”

Milgram Peers

When in the presence of these braver peers, 90% of Milgram’s subjects refused to follow through to the end of the experiment.

“The effects of peer rebellion are very impressive in undercutting the experimenter’s authority.  Indeed, of the score of experimental variations completed in this study, none was so effective in undercutting the experimenter’s authority as the manipulation reported here.”

Milgram understood well what his research showed, and what it meant.  If most people are merely obedient, then a very few truly bad actors can do an inordinate amount of damage.

“Any competent manager of a destructive bureaucratic system can arrange his personnel so that only the most callous and obtuse are directly involved in violence.  The greater part of the personnel can consist of men and women who, by virtue of their distance from the actual acts of brutality, will feel little strain in their performance of supportive functions.  They will feel doubly absolved from responsibility.  First, legitimate authority has given full warrant for their actions.  Second, they have not themselves committed brutal physical acts.”

But Milgram gives us reasons for optimism as well as pessimism.  No one who reads his experiments should feel righteous – everyone is implicated.  But even if we look weak, or cowardly, or gullible, through Milgram’s lens, we don’t look cruel.  Time and time again, in Milgram’s experiments, our better nature peeks through, when someone else sets a good example, or when the experimenter is out of the room.  If there’s one lesson in Milgram, it’s not that we’re obedient murderers; or, it’s not that we’re necessarily obedient murderers.  Rather, it’s that we’re essentially unresolved: all it takes is a little push, in either direction.  We’re able and willing to shock a man to death, sure, but we’re also able and willing to refuse.

Or, as Milgram put it:

“Those who argue that aggressive motives or sadistic instincts are unleashed when the command to hurt another person is given must take account of the subjects’ adamant refusal to go on in these experiments.  It is not what subjects do but for whom they are doing it that counts.”

I strongly recommend reading Milgram’s own writing about his work, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.  He tried a great number of experimental variables, and he discusses them clearly and succinctly.

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.

Stanley Milgram and ‘Obedience to Authority’ – Part 1


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.

Milgram Basic

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).

Shock Generator

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.