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The Milgram Obedience Experiment: The Demonstration of How Obedience to Authority Can Overrule Moral Judgement

Obedience is the most desired personality trait in the context of parents’ relationships with their children. / Photo by: Viacheslav Iakobchuk via 123rf

 

Obedience is often regarded in society as a virtue. In fact, in the study titled The Power of Situation: The Impact of Milgram’s Obedience Studies on Personality and Social Psychology, it was described as the most desired personality trait in the context of parents’ relationships with their children.

However, there is another aspect to obedience, which is blindly following orders from someone who is placed in a position of power even when there is a possibility that they may hurt others from obeying orders. Up to what extent do people submit to an authority figure’s commands and what makes them obey orders that can lead them to harm others? These were the questions which Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist from Yale University sought to answer.

 

What Is Obedience?

According to Verywell Mind, obedience is “a form of social influence that involves performing an action under the orders of an authority figure.” It has three elements. The first is that it has to be based on a command. The second is that it involves following someone who has a superior status. Lastly, it depends on a social power.

 

 

How the Experiment Began

In 1961, Milgram began his experiments after a World War II criminal by the name of Adolf Eichmann was in the process of being tried in court. Eichmann argued that he was only following the commands of those above him as he ordered numerous Jews to be killed. The statement aroused Milgram’s curiosity. He published a book with the title Obedience to Authority in 1974. He asked in the book if the Eichmann and the other soldiers who caused the death of several Jews should really be labeled as accomplices or if they were merely obeying the authorities. His study was also based on Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment.

 

The Experiment Process

With the help of newspaper ads, Milgram was able to get 40 male participants for his experiment. They would be given $4.50 for being part of the experiment.  Milgram used a shock generator with shock levels which ranged from 30 to 450. The shock generator had three switches which were marked as “slight shock”, “moderate shock”, and “danger: severe shock”. The last two switches were marked with “XXX”.

The subjects of the study were designated as teachers who were given students, who were actually part of the research team. The teachers were then instructed to give their students shocks for every wrong answer they had. The participants may think that they administered real shocks, but the students were really just acting.

Further into the experiment, the student would beg the teacher to let them free or moan about suffering from a heart condition. After getting past 300 volts, the student would bang themselves on the wall and beg for their release. When the teacher administered even more extreme levels of shock, the student would become uncooperative. They would stay quiet and would not agree to answer other questions. Experimenters would tell the participants that they should regard this silence as a wrong response and increase the levels of shock.

The majority of the participants would inquire if they should proceed. The experimenters would respond with four answers. The first was, “Please continue.” Another answer was, ”The experiment requires that you continue.” The experimenters could also persuade the participant to continue by saying, “It is absolutely essential that you continue.” Lastly, and the most urgent-sounding response was, “You have no other choice; you must go on.”

 

The experiment involves 40 male participants and the scenario is the teacher will give their student shocks for every wrong answer they had using the shock generator. / Photo by: goodluz via 123rf

 

Results of the Study

Initially, it was thought that only three out of a hundred participants would administer the highest level of shock. The result greatly differed from the prediction. After conducting the experiment, it was shown that 65% did it. Although many of the participants felt mad at the experimenters and troubled by their orders, they kept delivering the shocks until the end of the experiment.

Since several participants experienced anxiety while taking part in the study, they were debriefed afterwards. They were informed about how to students were only pretending to feel pain from the shock and clarified the procedures used in the experiment. At the end of his experiment, he conducted a survey. It was revealed that 84% expressed that they were happy to be part of the experiment. One percent reported that they wished they did not participate in the study.

 

Interpretation of the Experiment

Milgram had an explanation for why more than half his participants did a cruel act while being instructed to do so by the authorities, who in this case were the experimenters. Many factors influenced them to deliver the maximum shocks. He elaborated that having an authority figure present made them want to comply even more. He also stated that since Yale was a reputable institution, it caused the participants to think it was a safe experiment. The subjects must have also believed that the experimenters were experts. Maybe having a random selection of their roles contributed to their actions. Finally, the experimenters told that the participants that the shocks would hurt, but they did not say it would be fatal.

In his book, he expounded that normal people who are just trying to do their duties, even without feeling hostile, can be involved in a destructive process. In addition, he said that even when they realize the destructive impacts of their job and when they are instructed by the authorities to perform jobs that divert from basic moral standards, only a minority would have resources to turn against their superiors.

 

Milgran elaborated that having an authority figure present made the participants want to comply even more. / Photo by: auremar via 123rf

 

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