Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted his famous series of experiments widely known as Obedience Study almost 60 years ago. The ethics of the experiment have since been subject to criticism. However, it raised important questions about the power of authority in achieving obedience.
In this article, we take a look at the Milgram Experiment and what it reveals about human nature. We will also look at the counter-arguments which criticize Milgram’s ethics and dispute his results.
What Is the Milgram Obedience Study?
The Obedience Study refers to a set of psychology experiments conducted by Milgram. It intended to investigate the relationship between obedience to authority and personal conscience.
Milgram’s interest in conducting this study was sparked by the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal who was one of the main organizers of the Holocaust. Milgram wanted to find out how humans are capable of committing atrocities that go so far beyond their personal conscience.
Participants for Milgram’s experiments were recruited by a newspaper advert and were all male. All participants were given the role of “teacher” and were put in control of an electroshock generator.
They were instructed by the “experimenter” to ask the “learner” questions. If they answered them incorrectly, they should deliver a shock to them. Moreover, they would increase this shock by 15 volts with each wrong answer (with the increase leading to shocks that could be fatal).
The electric shocks were, in fact, fake and the “learner” in each experiment was part of the research team. So they would act out sounds of pain and plead for the experiment to stop.
When participants asked the experimenter whether they should stop the shocks (which the majority did) they were told these commands:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
What did the Milgram Obedience Study reveal about human nature?
The results of the Milgram Obedience Study were that two-thirds of participants (62.5%) delivered the maximum electric shock (450 volts, a shock that could have killed), and a third of participants stopped at 300 volts.
The observations showed that participants displayed significant signs of stress during the experiment. All participants stopped to question the experiment and some even offered to return the money they were to be paid so that the experiment would stop.
Milgram summed up that the results of the experiment showed that obedience is instilled in us all from an early age due to the way we are raised. Suggesting that, the instruction received by an authority figure, which the individual has deemed to be legally or morally authorized to give such instruction, would lead to obedience.
In the case of the Milgram Obedience Study, the authority figure was the experimental scientist and the results of the experiment, Milgram suggested, revealed that stark authority won over a participant’s strong imperative against hurting others. For many, the study revealed an illuminating aspect of human nature.
What is wrong with Milgram’s research?
Milgram’s research is widely cited and referenced within the field of psychology. Still, both the ethics and the methodology of the study have received ample criticism. Ethically, critics of the study believe that the intense stress levels that Milgram’s participants went through were unacceptable.
In addition to this, audio recordings of Milgram’s experiments (which were discovered by psychologist Gina Perry) demonstrate that, in some experiments, the ‘experimenter’ broke away from the set script and used bullying and coercion to force the participants to continue delivering the electric shocks. Perry also found that the majority of participants were not thoroughly debriefed after the traumatic experiment.
Methodologically, Milgram’s research has also received much criticism. The 62.5% statistic was used to prove Milgram’s theory of the power of authority on obedience. However, this study was based on the results of just 40 participants. This is too low a number to draw any concrete conclusions.
Further experiments conducted by Milgram often had conflicting methodologies with different scenarios and a variance in the severity of the experimenter. The lack of standardization makes the experiments difficult to compare. However, when looking at the 23 experiments as a whole, the average rate of obedience falls to 43%. This is significantly lower than the widely cited statistic of 62.5%.
What do current obedience studies say?
Despite the criticisms of the Milgram Obedience Study, this pioneering study did pave the way for further research into the causes of destructive obedience and the impact of this on world events and individual lives.
Research from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland suggests that human obedience to destructive activities is not solely in response to authority, an individual must also have strong ideological links with that authority figure and agree with the orders being given to them.
This theory does not completely dispute the work of Milgram, however. It deters from the ‘banality of evil’ idea that ordinary people are capable of committing terrible atrocities purely through following the orders of an authority figure.
The Milgram Obedience Study raised important questions about what leads individuals to obey orders. It also paved the way for further investigations into the power of authority on human behavior.
- Image credit: Yale University
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