This is the classical study by Milgram in 1963 covered in social psychology in year 1 of our course. Enjoy!
Your palms are sweaty. You can feel your heart beating in your throat.
“I think I should stop…” you stammer to a man in a white lab coat.
“It is absolutely essential that you continue,” he says back in a bland, unfeeling tone
“But, he is yelling…”
“You have no other choice but to continue.” He replies
You begin to question your sanity. How did you even get here?
Two weeks ago you applied to a newspaper advert for a psychological experiment, and now you are shocking a man with an electric shock generator in front of you. You can hear his screams in the other room. The psychologist tells you that the shocks are ‘painful, but NOT harmful’ but you are beginning to question if this is really the truth.
Are you going you kill him?
Well, if he dies it is the researcher’s fault… right?
You begin to go back in your head on what has happened to lead you to this critical moment. About 20 minutes ago you were sat in a room with a simple, smart-looking man in his 40s and the researcher in the lab coat. You found out the man was called “Mr Wallace”. The researcher explained that you have volunteered for a psychological study on learning and punishment. He said that one of you will be a “teacher” and one “learner”. After a coin toss, it is decided you are the “Teacher”.
You are taken into a room and watch Mr Wallace strapped into a chair. The researcher explains that the experiment requires the learner to receive an electric shock. Then the researcher gives you a 45 V shock, which you find highly painful. Attaching the wires onto Mr Wallace he is left in the room… strapped in and alone.
You begin to feel nervous.
But, this researcher is a respected man and Yale is a respected university. You put your faith in his authority and begin to relax. You are taken into another room with an electric shock generator. The researcher explains that every time Mr Wallace gets an answer wrong you need to shock him, starting at 15 volts and increasing by 15 volts every time.
You notice that the shocks further up the generator are labelled “dangerous, severe shock” then “XXX” by you are sure that you won’t need to go that far. So you begin, Mr Wallace gets one wrong and you shock him at 15 volts, then 30 volts, then 45 volts – you remember how painful it had been. Before you know it, you are shocking him at 180 volts and he is screaming in the next room. You ask the researcher if you should continue. “Please continue” he replies, seemingly unmoved by the man begging you to stop.
You feel sick. You feel afraid. This is against everything you have ever been told.
But… you carry on regardless.
At 300 volts, the man kicks the wall and refuses to answer. Then, he makes no other noise.
Is he dead? What have you done?
Would you continue shocking him to 450 volts? Or would you stop?
Well, in Milgram’s infamous 1963 study into obedience 65% of participants carried on- even after the learner became silent.
This result was a SHOCK. The original estimate was less than 1%. As psychologist believed that only psychopaths would hurt people for no reason. However, it turned out many “normal” people done what psychologists never thought they would.
Milgram was trying to research the horrors of the holocaust. He wanted to explore the question ‘how can normal people do horrendous things?’ The answer was simple, they were told too. Milgram has proven the existence of something he called the ‘agentic state’ whereby all people follow orders of authority figures. The only way, he believed, this could be overcome was by moral strain- where the order is so against the moral code of the individual that he switches to an ‘autonomous state’ and refuses the order.
In 2006, Burger also did a more ethical version of Milgram’s Variation #5. He found that people with a high locus of control tended to refuse slightly more often than others- because of their need to be in control!
This study has a very important message: That, in order to stop horrendous events, each and every person must take responsibility for their actions and refuse to partake in things that are against their moral code.