The Milgram Experiment: When Ordinary People Do Terrible Things

Are ordinary people able to do terrible things? And if so, how many would give high electric shocks to an innocent student, just because they are following an order? To find out, Stanley Milgram, a young psychologist at Yale University, conducted a clever, but controversial, experiment that changed our understanding of human behavior forever.

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the full story
Milgram full story

Are ordinary people able to do terrible things? And if so, how many would give a strong electric shock to an innocent other, just because they are following an order? To answer these questions, we can look at the controversial work of a man who just wanted to find answers to his family’s horrific past.

stanley milgram
Stanley Milgram

In 1961, Stanley Milgram, a young psychologist, wanted to find out how ordinary citizens were able to commit acts of unspeakable evil in Nazi Germany. His theory: some people do horrific things because they obey even the most wicked leaders. To test his theory, Milgram designed a clever experiment that changed our understanding of human behavior forever.

testing components
Testing component

The Milgram Experiment involved 3 people: An authority, called the experimenter, who was dressed in a lab coat to appear powerful. A volunteer, who was assigned to be the teacher. And a victim, the so-called student. The teacher was the test subject, whereas the experimenter and student were both actors.

Following orders, the teacher should test a student, who is sitting in another room,  by asking them questions. For every wrong answer the experimenter would ask the teacher to inflict an electric shock up to a life threatening 450 volts. 

Before he began, Milgram asked his colleagues what they expected the outcome to be. Almost all of them agreed that only a few of the volunteers would obey and inflict electric shocks on innocent others. What do you think? Would anyone administer shocks higher than 300 volts?

Milgram then advertised his experiment as a “study on memory and learning” at the campus of Yale university. People signed up without any idea of what they were really getting themselves into.

The milgram’s experiment
The Milgram Experiment

The experiment began with the volunteers meeting the other participants. The volunteers then pulled a card to draw their role. Little did they know that they could only draw the teacher. Next, they would be given a sample of a light electric shock in order to experience firsthand what the others would have to go through.

To start, the experimenter and the teacher were seated in one room, and the student was strapped to a chair in an adjacent room. The Teacher and student were able to communicate, but not see each other.

beginning of the experiment
Experiment Stage

The experimenter then gave the teacher a list of questions. The teacher would then read out the questions and the student would press a button to indicate a response. For every false answer, the teacher would administer a shock, starting at 15 volts and increasing in 15-volt increments up to 450.

What the teacher did not know was that the student didn’t actually receive any shocks. Instead, a tape recorder was used to play various responses. In the beginning the teacher would hear protest, or bangs against the wall. If shocks would increase the reactions would become louder. And in case someone would go all the way, the learner would fall silent.

during the experiment
Experiment influencer

In case the teacher became hesitant and asked to stop, the experimenter would resort to the following four prompts. First, he would say: “Please continue”. If that was unsuccessful, he would go on with: “The experiment requires that you continue”. Then: “It is absolutely essential that you continue”. And lastly: “You have no other choice; you must go on”.

Along the way, the volunteers displayed signs of extreme tension such as sweating, trembling, and even uncontrollable laughing fits. The experiment would be stopped only after all four prompts had been used or the maximum voltage of 450 volts had been given three times.

Milgram conclusion

Milgram found that of all participants, 100% gave at least 300 volts and 65% went all the way to 450 volts. The experiment was later criticized for being unethical because it deceived innocent people into performing what seem to be terrible acts of violence. 

However, his experiment was successfully replicated many times, involving different populations and leading to similar findings.

Milgram himself left us with this to think about:  “It may be that we are puppets – 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.”

what do you think?
Migram what do you think

What do you think? Would you follow or question the orders if you were one of Milgram’s participants? And what can we as a society teach future generations to help prevent horrific acts that can happen when ordinary people blindly follow an authority? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.


Dig deeper

Classroom exercise

Authority in the classroom

Educator Joe Wayand passed along this activity he conducts in his classroom: When I cover the Milgram experiment, I show some of the original Obedience film – most liberties have it (note that you can show parts of the Milgram Experiment 1962 Full Documentary). I make sure that I will run out of class time before I run out of video. Then I tell students “I know we’re almost out of time, but I want you to stay and watch the rest of the video.” Then at about 1 minute past, I again say “I know we’re running late, but it’s important that you watch the rest of the video.” The students are very restless at this point, but typically they will stay seated. 3 minutes past… 4 minutes past… Often I have to “let them off the hook” by parroting the language of the experimenter: “It is essential that you remain until the video has ended.” “After the video is over, I will rewind the video and we’ll continue watching from the beginning.” Finally it will dawn on a student that I am tricking them. As that first student gets up to leave, I yell: “Sit down! You must remain and watch the video!” The student usually keeps leaving, and I keep yelling. “I’m Dr. Wayand! I demand that you return to your seat!” At this point, half the students are smiling, and the other half are horrified. Eventually they get the joke, and I continue ordering them to return as they all file out of the classroom. This really gives the students a personal taste of the conformity that’s all around us. They understand it’s not just “other people” who are subject to conformity. At the start of the next class, we discuss what it felt like, etc. You have to be a little brave to try this stunt, but the students really remember it. 

Thanks to Jon Mueller, Professor of Psychology at North Central College, Naperville for sharing this activity on his website

Discussion about ethical implications

Start a discussion with your class on the pros and cons of Milgram’s study. Split the class into two teams and assign one as being for and one as being against the study. Now let each group collect arguments for their position, f.e.:  Pro: Milgram’s study gave us a great insight into the topic of human behavior, obedience and responsibility. Contra: The study was unethical as participants were deceived, could not give informed consent, and were driven to do terrible acts of violence they have to live with for the rest of their lives.

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