Obeying authority in certain situations can place another individual’s health or life at stake. World War II is an example of this. A member of the German officer’s corps, when ordered to slaughter victims, had no remorse feelings about killing them due to the fact that within his mind he was acting rightly. This shows how people are not always going to feel guilt or remorse feelings for their actions. There are times when people are ordered to do something even when they don’t want to. One mad man, Adolph Hitler, decided he wanted to destroy the Jews and even create a master plan for getting it done. Milgram questioned the dispositional view of the German character. He felt that the situation that many people had found themselves in had led to their cruel behavior. Milgram set out to test this behavior. This thesis says that the Germans have a basic flaw that explains the whole situation, and this flaw is a readiness to obey authority without question, no matter what outrageous acts the authority commands.
Stanley Milgram, 1933-1984, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted a study focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense often was based on “obedience”, that they were just following the orders of their superiors. This experiment of conformity was said to be controversial. According to Milgram, humans have the dual capacity to function as an individual, which is to exercise his or her own moral judgement and to make the choice on their own personal character. What still is a mystery today is what happens to the average person who is obedient to authority when it overrides his or her own moral judgement?
In this experiment there are two people involved, the “learner”, a mild mannered man who was the one being shocked, and the “teacher”, a stern looking secondary school teacher male who was doing the shocking. Participants were told they were taking part in a study of effects of punishment on learning. They were also told that each time they were to make an error in a simple learning task they would be shocked. A preliminary run is given to the learner. This allows the subject to get a chance to get used to the instructions and a chance to warm up. The learner gets three out of ten correct and receives seven shocks. The shocks were delivered by means of switches on a special device. There were thirty switches on the device, each one being labeled. The first shock was fifteen volts, then moved to the next switch, which increased by fifteen volts and became thirty volts. Each switch is increased by fifteen volts and goes all the way up to four hundred and fifty volts. In this particular experiment, the learner received 105 volts.
Another example of the same experiment was taken place in larger place. It was conducted at Yale
University in 1961. In this experiment there were about 75 people involved, which varied between the ages of 20 and 50. The group was split in half, one half were the teachers and the other half were the learners. The learners were each put into a room and were strapped to a chair to prevent movement. Their wrists were attached to the chair with straps with electrodes attached to them. Those electrodes were applied with conductive gel to prevent burning and blisters. The teachers were located on the other side of the wall in each room. Located in the room with the teacher was the shocking device. The teacher then reads a list of word pairs and asks he learner to read them back. The communication is transferred by a one way intercom from the teachers’ room to the learners’ room. The learner can answer by pressing one of four convenient levers. If they answer correctly they would move to the next word pair, if incorrect, there would be a fifteen-volt shock, going up 15 volts each time wrong. Some of the pairs were prearranged so the learners would be forced with a dilemma. Next the learners give responses till they reach three hundred volts. At this point they begin to pound on the chair and do not respond to the questions. Before administering more than three hundred volts the teacher gives one of four scripted pods. These are, please continue, the experiment requires that you continue, it is absolutely essential that you continue, you have no other choice, you must go on. This showed that the learners really had no choice but to continue. First, the learners would use pod one, if the teacher refused they would try pod two, then three, then four, breaking off as soon as the subject continued.
Results of this experiment show that many subjects became extremely nervous. Some evidence of this was sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groans, and even digging their fingernails into their flesh. Some showed nervous laughter and some even experienced seizures. Clear evidence show that the presence of the teacher helped increase obedience. When he left the room the learner’s nervousness decreased almost by fifty percent. Today, the same thing happens in classrooms, offices, and factory floors.
Milgram’s experiment was criticized because of the prestige of science, display of technology, clean white rooms, and the teacher in a white coat. This led the learner to behave in a way they never would in real life, so they said. To test the hypothesis, Milgram conducted the study again in a run-down office building with no association with the prestigious Yale University. The obedience dropped almost twenty percent. Where in reality, subjects were involved in a real life situation because scientific experiments are part of the world we live in.
Milgram also conducted several follow-up experiments to determine what would mediate the likelihood of maximum shock delivery. He repeated the experiments described above, except that this time
Milgram had four conditions. One condition, the verbal condition, was exactly the same as before. This was that the learner was in another room but could be heard by the teacher. In the second condition, the remote-feedback condition, the only feedback on the learners’ condition was pounded on the wall at 300 volts. In the third condition, the proximity condition, the learner was seated right next to the teacher. In the fourth and final condition, the teacher was required to hold the hand of the learner on a “shock plate” in order to give him shocks above 150 volts.
The most amazing thing to note from this follow-up experiment is that thirty two percent of the subjects in the proximity touch condition held the hand of the learner on the shock plate while administering shocks in excess of 400 volts. Further experiment showed that teachers were less obedient when the experimenter communicated with them over the telephone rather than in person, and males were just as likely to be obedient as females, although females tended to be more nervous. Milgram’s experiment has been repeated in Australia, South Africa, and in several European countries. In one study, over eighty-five percent of the subjects administered a lethal electric shock to the learner.
Milgram felt that his experiments helped provide in sight into how behaviors such as the Nazi war crimes and Vietnam massacres. He notes that Nazis frequently described themselves as helpless parts of a big machine. He also notes that their tendency to “devalue” their victims; the European Jews were the subject of a massive propaganda campaign designed to make then appear as sub-humans. Milgram found a tendency to devalue the learner in his experiment, such as “why doesn’t the dumb guy get it right” were not uncommon. One teacher even claimed that the learner was “so dumb he deserved to get shocked”.
Obedience to authority is a basic tenant of any human social organization. Virtually every society has developed some sort of hierarchy in which some individuals exercise a degree of authority over others. For example, teachers have authority over their students; police officers have authority over members of the public.
Basically, it’s hard to conceive of a society that could function without this type of arrangement. However, there are times when private belief and compliance with those in authority may come into conflict. The resolution of this conflict represents one of the oldest problems in philosophy and religion. Abraham, when commanded by God to kill his son, was torn between the love of his son and his obedience to God. Obedience to authority is a form of compliance and it has been studied in the laboratories of social psychologists for many years.
The experiments carried out by Milgram have given insight into human obedience. While, not giving us the complete picture, they are certainly sobering and give us a glimpse of one of the darker side of human nature; a side that we probably want to pretend didn’t exist.
Blass, Thomas, Understanding Behavior in the Milgram obedience experiment: The role of personality, Situations, and Their Interactions”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology v 60 n3 p398-413 March 1991