Would you give someone a deadly electric shock? Would you follow orders to commit a violent crime against an innocent person? Would you support an unjust cause, just because you are told to?
People rarely see themselves as violent or capable of committing violent acts. People rarely see themselves on the wrong side of history. And yet, human history is full of violence, genocides, and atrocities. You might see friends and family now, people that you believe are good people, supporting violence. How does this happen?
I’m going to tell you about an experiment in psychology that set out to explain why people commit violence against others. And then I’ll ask you these questions again. The true answers to these questions might surprise you.
History of the Milgram Shock Study
This study is most commonly known as the Milgram Shock Study or the Milgram Experiment. Its name comes from Stanley Milgram, the psychologist behind the study.
Milgram was born in the 1930s in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents. As he grew up, he witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust from thousands of miles away. How could people commit such atrocities? How could people see the horror in front of them and continue to participate in it?
These questions followed him as he became a psychologist at Yale University. In 1961, he decided to set up a study that might show how people follow orders from authority, even if it goes against their morals.
How Did the Study Work?
Over the course of two years, Milgram recruited men to participate in a study. Milgram created a few variations of the study, but in general, they involved the participant, a “learner,” and an experimenter. The participant acted as a “teacher,” reading out words to the learner. The learner would have to repeat the words back to the participant. If the learner got it wrong, the teacher had to deliver an electric shock.
These shocks increased in voltage. At first, the shocks were around 15 volts - just a mild sensation. But the shocks reached up to 450 volts, which is extremely dangerous. (Of course, these shocks weren’t real. The learner was an actor who played along with the study.)
The experimenter encouraged the participants to administer the shocks whenever the learner was incorrect. As the voltages increased, some participants resisted. In some variations of the study, the experimenter would urge the participants to administer the shocks. This happened in stages. Some participants were told to please continue, and eventually told that they had no choice but to continue.
In some variations of the study, the participant would beg the participant not to administer the shocks, complaining of a heart problem. The participant would even fake death once the highest voltages were reached.
You might be surprised to hear that this study even took place - there are obviously some ethical concerns behind asking participants to deliver dangerous electric shocks. The trauma of that study could impact participants, some of whom did not learn the truth about the study for months after it was over.
But you also might be surprised to hear that a lot of the participants did administer the most dangerous shocks.
After the experiment was complete, Milgram asked a group of his students how many participants they thought would deliver the highest shock. The students predicted 3%. But in the most well-known variation of the study, a shocking 65% of participants reached the highest level of shocks. All of the participants reached the 300-volt level.
Legacy of the Study
The Milgram Shock Study took place over 50 years ago, and it is still considered one of the most controversial and infamous studies in modern history. The study even inspired made-for-TV movies!
But not everyone praises Milgram for his boldness.
Critiques of the Study
The results of this study aren’t particularly optimistic, and there have been critiques from psychologists over the years. After all, Milgram’s selection of participants wasn’t perfect. All of the participants were male, a group that only represents 50% of the population. Would the results be different if women were asked to deliver the electric shocks? Another factor to consider is that, like in the Stanford Prison Experiment, all of the participants answered a newspaper ad to participate in the study for money. Would the results be different if the participants were not the type to volunteer for an unknown study?
Other critics believe that documentation of Milgram’s experiment suggest that some participants were coerced into completing the study. Psychologist Gina Perry believes that participants were even “bullied” into completing the study.
Perry also believes that Milgram failed to tell participants the truth about the study. Rather than telling participants that the learner was an actor and shocks were never delivered, experimenters simply allowed participants to calm down after the study and sent them home. Many were never told the truth. That’s not very ethical, especially when their participation could have meant injuring another person.
With most studies from 50 years ago, psychologists have attempted to retest Milgram’s theories. It’s been hard to replicate the study because of its controversial methods. But similar studies that have slightly tweaked Milgram’s methods have yielded similar results. Other replications take Milgram’s findings a step further. People are more obedient than they might seem.
Does this mean that we’re all bad people, just hiding under a mirage of sound judgement? Not exactly. Five years after the publication of Milgram’s experiment, psychologist Walter Mischel published Personality and Assessment. It suggested that trait theorists were looking at personality theory all wrong. Mischel suggested that different situations could drive different behaviors. Thus, situationism was born. Studies like Milgram’s experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment are still considered supporting evidence of situationism.
So let me ask the questions that I asked at the beginning of this video. Would you give someone a deadly electric shock? Would you follow orders to commit a violent crime against an innocent person? Would you support an unjust cause, just because you are told to? Would it just depend on the situation?