The Power of Authority: Milgram’s Shock Experiments

By: Adam Tseng


Would you ever shock a random stranger on the street? Sounds like an obvious “no,” doesn’t it? But what if you were ordered to do it by someone important? Would you still say no?

This is the question Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram set out to answer in his famous Shock Experiments.📷

After the Second World War, the horrors of the Holocaust were exposed to the world. Americans balked at the thought that the Nazis killed millions of Jewish innocents without batting an eye. Their crimes seemed inexplicable. But when the murderers were put on trial, their answers were all the same: “I was only following orders.” It’s easy to label all of those concentration camp guards, SS soldiers, and party officers as half-crazed demons possessed by a devilish, fanatical desire to exterminate the Jewish race. However, Milgram was skeptical of that notion and decided to put it to the test.

For his experiments, Milgram created three roles: a researcher, teacher and student. The study subjects drew straws to determine whether they would be a teacher or student, but the draw was intentionally botched so that all of the subjects ended up being the teacher. The student and the researcher were both secretly working for Milgram. Each new teacher would be escorted in by the researcher and told that they would be asking the student questions and administering a shock through a special machine upon an incorrect response, increasing the voltage with each wrong answer. Though the machine and shocks were not real, they certainly looked like they were. Deliberately, the student would provide numerous wrong answers, prompting the teacher to increase the voltage dramatically. Over the course of the experiment, the student would feign excruciating pain, pleading to be released, and let out disturbing screams, but the researcher would prompt the teacher to continue asking questions and delivering shocks. 📷

The results were chilling. Sixty-five percent of all the subjects reached the maximum voltage (400 volts) in shock delivery. All of them surpassed 300 volts. Though the subjects became visibly distressed by what they were doing to the student and had every right to simply walk out, they all felt compelled to continue because of the researcher’s instructions.

Milgram demonstrated the enormous power of conformity and social influence - two factors that captivated and puzzled social psychologists - and how they affected people’s behavior with others. Though a person, left to himself, may be kind and virtuous, his personality often changes within a group. He realized that, due to the influence of the researcher, the subjects felt safer and more justified in delivering the cruel shocks. This was because the researcher was perceived to be a knowledgeable authority figure who would take responsibility for his actions. After all, they assumed that the researcher “knew what he was doing.” This desire to stay with the norm in order to fit in with a group is called normative social influence.

The Shock Experiments showed that the Nazis, who murdered millions of innocent Jews, weren’t devils or sadists. They were ordinary people driven to commit horrific acts by higher-ups in the German chain of command. While this did not vindicate the crimes committed by the Nazis in any way, it did reveal a far more sinister conclusion. In using regular citizens, workers, professionals, and commoners as his test subjects, Milgram proved this fearsome scenario could happen anywhere and to anyone.

Every story has a bright side, and even this unnerving one is no exception. Throughout the study, the subjects had been cognizant of the massive pain they were inflicting on the student, and simply felt hard pressed by the researchers to continue. This cognizance became clear when Milgram informed the subjects that the student was in fact unharmed after the experiments ended. They displayed extreme relief, even to the point of tears. In a variation of his experiments, Milgram added two other teachers. All three of them were given the same instructions to ask questions and deliver increasingly powerful shocks (which were actually fake, just like in the original experiment), but only one of the teachers was a subject. Under Milgram’s secret directions, the other two, who were not subjects, intentionally stopped and refused to continue at 150 and 210 volts, walking out the door. This change in experimental protocol resulted in a 90% decrease in obedience from the original study, showing that people were capable of rising up and resisting authority, so long as they had fellow peers to look up to. It only takes a few courageous people to light the spark to ignite the fire of rebellion that can overcome the power of authority. As Stanley Milgram himself put it:

“It may be that we are puppets… controlled by the strings of society. But at least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation.”

Works Cited

Cherry, Kendra. “Why Was the Milgram Experiment so Controversial?” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 16 Sept. 2019, www.verywellmind.com/the-milgram-obedience-experiment-2795243.

“The History Project.” History Posts, on This Day, Videos, Amazing Photographs, thehistoryproject.co.uk/posts.php?id=121.

Mcleod, Saul. “The Milgram Experiment.” Milgram Experiment | Simply Psychology, Simply Psychology, 5 Feb. 2017, www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html.

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