What Milgram found was that average normal people, would readily inflict very painful and perhaps even harmful electric shocks on innocent victims.
Milgram recruited participants to be part of an experiment, supposedly to study the relationship between punishment and learning. The real purpose was to learn the factors that led some people to commit harm to others when told to do so by someone in authority.
Milgram created an elaborate sham, involving a learner, a teacher, a researcher, and an ominous look shock generator.
The teacher was the real subject in the experiment. The learner was in on the sham; hired by Milgram to play a role. The experimenter was also an actor, a very distinguished “professorial type” wearing a white lab coat.
The real subject, the teacher, was made to believe that he had been assigned to serve as teacher by the luck of the draw, and was made to believe that the shock generator actually delivered a shock to the learner. In fact, the only shock that was ever given was given to the teacher to “prove” that the shocks were real.
The shock generator had a series of switches, each labeled in 15 volt increments – from 15 to 450 volts. The last three switches were marked XXX.
The teacher read a series of words that the learner was to memorize. The teacher was instructed to deliver ever-increasing shock levels for each incorrect answer.
The learner made mistakes according to the script.
At some point, in response to the learner’s complaints (or their silence), each teacher turned to the experimenter and asked to stop – or at least questioned whether to continue. The stern professorial looking experimenter had been trained to provide the same 4 responses.
The 1st time the teacher questioned whether to continue the experimenter said, “Please continue”
2nd time: “The experiment requires that you continue”
3rd time: “It is absolutely essential that you continue”
4th time: “You have no other choice, you must go on”
If the teacher still wished to stop after 4 verbal prods, it was over; otherwise the shocks continued until the subject had given the maximum (450 volt -- XXX) shock, 3 times in succession.
Milgram’s experiment is famous because it was so deceptive, unethical, and just plain wrong to do that to people. It’s more famous because of what it says about us. 65% delivered the maximum shock.
Interestingly, one of Milgram’s subjects was a professor of Old Testament theology. This subject disobeyed authority and stopped giving the shocks shortly after the first protest. The professor explained his actions saying, “If one had as one’s ultimate authority, God, then it trivializes human authority.”
I think that Stanley Milgram, of all people, makes a pretty good case for why we need to deal with psychology before our kids go to college. There’s a professorial looking guy there who may demand their obedience.