The Milgram Experiments and What They Teach Us

Andrew Lepore | United States

In 1942, following the invasion of Poland and its defeat by Nazi Germany, Polish diplomats sought refuge in Great Britain. That year received a secret message from their occupied homeland confirming the Jewish genocide at the hands of the Nazis. Rumors of such an atrocity had been circling for years, but with this came the first official confirmation. Newspapers and journals from around the world reported headlines such as  “MASSACRE OF JEWS—OVER 1,000,000 DEAD SINCE THE WAR BEGAN” and “NAZI SLAUGHTERHOUSE”—GERMANS MASSACRE MILLIONS OF JEWS IN EXTERMINATION DRIVE”.

People across the world reacted in horror, anger, and confusion. Many were unable to comprehend how people as cultured and educated as the Germans could be so brainwashed. They wondered how they could willfully and enthusiastically carry out orders to exterminate millions of innocent men, women, and children.

The Nuremberg Trials

In late 1945, with the defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of many Jews, the world sought justice. The first ever military tribunal prosecuting international war criminals commenced in Nuremberg Germany, composed of judges from the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. History has come to remember this series of trials lasting from 1945-1949 as the “Nuremberg trials”.

The most famous of the Nuremberg trials was the “trial of major war criminals”, in which 24 of the highest ranking Nazi officials were indicted on at least one of these three charges: crimes against peace—defined as participation in waging of a war of aggression ; war crimes—defined as violations of previously agreed upon rules of war, or international treaties; and (4) crimes against humanity— Defined as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population.”

The Nuremberg Defence

Nearly every Nazi defendant was facing an indictment that, if found guilty, carried a high likelihood of the death penalty; and In some cases, due to overwhelming evidence, arguing innocence would have been a fool’s errand. Because of the circumstances, the Nazi lawyers used “Defense of Superior Orders”. This is otherwise known as “The Nuremberg Defense”. The Nazi Defendants at Nuremberg argued that they as individuals were not responsible legally for their actions. A senior officer was telling them what to do.  They argued that they were just doing their job. They argued they should not be punished for their wrongdoings while fulfilling their duty.

The Nazi defendants and their lawyers who employed this defense believed they had a strong case. Though, allied lawmakers did not view this to be a valid excuse absolving them of any wrongdoing. In the London charter of the International Military tribunal, which laid down the plans and regulations for the trials, it was stated “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was, in fact, possible to him.”

Milgram Enters The Picture

In the end, 12 of the 24 defendants were sentenced to hang. 3 were sentenced to life imprisonment, and 4 received prison sentences ranging from 10-20 years. While the “superior orders” defense did not work for the Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials, it attracted the interest of Social Psychologist and Yale professor, Dr.Stanley Milgram. Milgram grew up in South Bronx, NY in a working-class Jewish family and was a gifted student from a young age. In 1954, he completed his bachelor’s degree at Queens University and began graduate studies at the Harvard University Social Relations Department.

At Harvard, Milgram studied under one of the most prominent Social Psychologists of the day, Solomon Asch. Asch’s experiments on group behavior and conformity, which showed more likely than not that individuals would conform to group perspectives even when those individuals knew those perspectives to be incorrect, became of special interest to Milgram. He wanted to know how Asch’s findings on conformity could be applied to large populations. Milgram traveled the world conducting various experiments studying the nature of stereotypes in a number of populations. Milgram’s studies showed rates of conformity do not vary significantly from nationality to nationality. This suggesting that some deeper aspect of human nature is at play.

After Milgram had earned his Ph.D. from  Harvard, he accepted a job as an assistant professor at Yale University. At Yale Milgram’s studies focused in on a narrower aspect of conformity: obedience. He drew from his background as a Jewish boy growing up acutely aware of the horrors endured by his people at the hands of the Nazis. Milgram wanted to understand the factors which led individuals to obey unjust orders. He wanted to know how easily ordinary people could be influenced by an authority figure to commit immoral acts.

To test this, Milgram designed an unprecedented experiment. His team advertised in the local newspaper that male volunteers were needed as participants in a study. The ad said they would test the relationship between pain and memory and would be paid 4$ for an hour of their time. The procedure for the experiment consisted of one participant playing the role of “teacher”, and one participant playing the role as “learner”. The teacher and the researcher would be in one room, with the teacher placed in front of a “shock generator”. The Learner would be placed behind a wall, out of sight of the teacher. He would be strapped on an “electric chair” with electrodes connected to various parts of their body.

The Milgram Experiments Begin

Before the testing, the Leaner was given a list of word pairs to memorize. The role of the teacher was then to name a word from the list, and test how accurately the learner could remember and recall the paired word. Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher is instructed by the researcher to deliver an electric shock. The shock would increase in voltage with every wrong answer. This ranged from 15 volts (a minor shock) all the way to 450 volts (a potentially lethal shock).

At least this was how it looked from the perspective of the “teacher”. The teacher was the real subject of the experiment. What the ‘teacher’ did not know was that both the “researcher” and the “learner” were paid actors. The so-called shocks were completely harmless. The experiment was really testing the nature of obedience, not memory. The real goal of the experiment was to see how likely it would be that an average individual would commit acts against their conscious if ordered to by someone whom they perceive to be an authority figure. The “researcher” in this experiment represented the authority figure, with a stern appearance and wearing a white lab coat.

The actual job of the “learner” was to give wrong answers and act as if they were in pain with every wrong answer. At around the 300-volt mark, the actor was to display agony, pound on the wall and demand to be let out, proclaiming they have a heart problem. At this point, the “teacher” nearly always began to protest. They refused to continue. The participants did not wish to hurt another innocent individual, often shaking, sweating, and showing real distress. Though this factor was crucial for the experiment, as the goal was to see what percentage would obey commands from an authority figure that went against their conscience. The researcher was then to respond with one of four prods, “Please continue”; “The experiment requires you to continue”; “It is absolutely essential that you continue; “You have no other choice but to continue”.

If the “teacher” obeyed and continued the questioning until approximately the 400-volt mark, the actor was to stop responding and act as if he went unconscious. If the researcher was met with more protests by the teacher, he would respond the same, with instructions to continue all the way. In the end, 66% of the 50 participants failed to disobey the order to deliver the highest level, potentially lethal shock, at the command of somebody whom they perceive to be an authority figure.  

What the Experiments Show

The results of the test were shocking even to Milgram himself. Before conducting the experiment, Milgram surveyed his colleagues and students on what percentage of participants they believed would go all the way to the highest shock level. They hypothesized only 1-3% would go all the way, and that those who would are likely sociopaths. It is important to note that all the participants were previously screened for sadistic tendencies, as to ensure the individuals in the test group best represented the average person.

“I set up a simple experiment at yale to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects strongest imperatives against hurting others, and with the subjects ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any length on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding this study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people simply doing their job and without any particular hostility on their part can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover even when the destructive effects of their work became patently clear, and they were asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority”

– Dr. Stanley Milgram, “Perils of Obedience” 1974

Milgram’s team executed many variations of the experiment to test how different factors affected compliance rates. For example, compliance rates dropped slightly when the “researcher” was further away. Also when the participant was given the commands by telephone the compliance rate dropped by over half. Milgram also did multiple variation studies with female participants and found little significant difference in compliance, though the female participants did display higher levels of distress. Interestingly, participants in groups were far more likely to disobey if another participant had already disobeyed, echoing findings from the Asch experiments just under a decade earlier.

His explanation for the incentive to obey authority, even when it goes against an individual’s personal morals, is evolution. Milgram believed humans evolved for the capacity to form groups and organize into social hierarchies. We did this because it gave us a massive survival advantage. It is the most effective way to coordinate a group. He explained that when a person enters into a hierarchy, they enter what he calls an “agentic state”. He describes this as a shift in mindset from that of an autonomous individual to that of an “agent”. This is a shift in which you no longer feel individually responsible for your actions. Rather, you feel responsible to the authority figure above you.

Once we enter an agentic state, there are various incentives keeping us there, Milgram called these “binding factors”. One of these binding factors is the issue of consistency. For an individual in an agentic state to admit his current actions are wrong, he would have to admit all his previous actions, and maybe even his whole mindset, is also wrong. Many are not willing to do so, or aren’t even able to see past their conditioning. Another binding factor is the feeling of discomfort, anxiety, or embarrassment one gets when disobeying an authority figure. This reaction to disrupting the social hierarchy and the natural functionality of things is likely a response to evolutionary incentives. Those who did not obey and conform often did not last long.

Milgram believed the conclusions of his experiments both explained the actions of the German people in the Second World War. It also showed that most people are capable of acts immoral, heinous, and against their conscience. The Milgram experiments shed light on a huge aspect of human nature. It allows us to both understand and explain many aspects of human action. Dr. Stanley Milgram’s experiments were a major contribution to the field of psychology and are still studied and being replicated in various ways today.

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