Obedience to Authority

by Stanley Milgram

The “Milgram Experiment,” along with the Stanford Prison Experiment, is probably one of the better-known sociological experiments of the ’60s / ’70s. While I knew the basics (a person goes in for a psychological experiment — supposedly about the effects of punishment on learning — and is told by an experimenter to shock the “learner” (actually an actor) with increasingly higher voltage), the book was good in explaining how they varied the experiment to delve into the reasons for people’s behavior. Milgram and his colleagues were surprised at the percentages of people who obeyed the experimenter and shocked the “learner” while he is strapped down to a chair and protesting in pain, so they did a thorough job of investigating the reasons for this unexpected behavior. They also went beyond proving that people tend to obey authority and tested out what constitutes “authority.”

Roles: “teacher” — the actual subject, the person who came in for the supposed learning experiment; “learner” — an actor supposedly getting shocked; “experimenter” — the person in charge of the experiment

In the most basic version the teacher and learner arrive, are told by the experimenter about the learning experiment, and draw assignments from a hat as to who will be learner and who will be teacher. The drawing is rigged, but it’s an important aspect of the experiment (one of very few topics that Milgram doesn’t address as much as I would have liked) that the teacher think that he/she could just as easily have been in the other role, getting shocked.

The book is well worth reading, and I won’t get into all Milgram’s explanations and findings, but here are the versions of the experiment:

Experiment (# of people) (explanation)

1 Remote (40) (learner in the other room, strapped down, but no feedback; only deterrent is that shock levels are labeled as dangerous)

2 Voice-Feedback (40) (learner in the other room, strapped down and yelling in pain after the 150v shock level)

3 Proximity (40) (learner in the same room)

4 Touch-Proximity (40) (learner in the same room and refusing to be shocked, teacher must hold his hand to shock pad to proceed)

5 More Meager Lab (40) (new version of same experiment — this lab is not as fancy looking)

6 Change of Personnel (40) (if the learner seems more dominating, would that change things?)

7 Experimenter Absent (40) (experimenter leaves the room, is available by phone to tell the teacher to continue administering shocks)

8 Women (40) (all other groups were men only; this is male experimenter, male learner, female teacher)

9 Heart Condition (40) (learner begins the experiment by mentioning he has a minor heart condition)

10 Office Building (40) (setting is local office building instead of university lab)

11 Subject Chooses Shock Level (40) (teacher does not administer shocks beyond the maximum level he feels comfortable shocking the victim at)

12 Learner Demands to Be Shocked (20) (experimenter says let’s stop, but learner says let’s go on)

13 Ordinary Man Gives Orders (20) (instead of the experimenter being in charge, another supposed subject (actually another actor) is involved — another rigged drawing puts the three in their roles)

13a Subject as Bystander (16) (if in 13, the teacher refuses to administer shocks, the third person says “If you won’t, I will”)

14 Authority as Victim (20) (learner refuses to be shocked until he sees the experimenter go through the situation first)

15 Two Authorities, Contradictory Commands (20) (two experimenters giving opposite commands — continue / stop)

16 Two Authorities, One as Victim (20) (combination of 15 and 14)

17 Two Peers Rebel * (40) (there are three co-teachers (two of them are actors), and the two opt out at certain points)

18 Peer Administers Shocks (40) (subject is in the room in teacher role, but co-teacher with someone else who has to actually push the button)

*This is the only one that’s not entirely satisfyingly explained, which Milgram admits. More of the “teachers” refused to finish the experiment in this situation, but is that peer influence, or realizing there are no repercussions for quitting, or the idea of quitting being introduced as an option, or feeling judged by the other two (who remain in the room) for proceeding when they didn’t, etc.

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