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Milgram Study

Casti, John L., Paradigms Lost, Chapter 3:It's in the Genes, AVON BOOKS, The Hearst Corporation, 105 Madison Avenue, New York NY 100016, P.143

A few years ago, in one of the most fascinating and disturbing experiments in the annals of behavioral psychology, Stanley Milgram of Yale tested forty subjects from all walks of life for their willingness to obey instructions given by a "leader" in a situation in which the subjects might feel a personal abhorrence for the actions they were called upon to perform.  Specifically, Milgram told each volunteer "teacher-subject" that the experiment was in the noble cause of education, and was designed to test whether or not punishing pupils for their mistakes would have a positive effect on the pupils.

Milgram's experimental setup involved placing the teacher before a panel of thirty switches with labels ranging from "15 Volts (Slight Shock)" to "450 Volts (Danger--Severe Shock)" in steps of 15 volts each.  The subject was told that whenever the pupil gave the wrong answer to a question, a shock was to be administered, beginning at the lowest level and increasing in severity with each successive wrong answer.  The supposed "pupil" was in reality an actor hired by Milgram to simulate receiving the shocks by emitting a spectrum of groans, screams, and writhings, together with an assortment of statements and expletives denouncing both the experiment and the experimenter.  Milgram told the subject to ignore the reactions of the pupil, and to administer whatever level of shock was called for as per the rule governing the experimental situation of the moment.

As the experiment unfolded, the pupil would deliberately give the wrong answers to questions posed by the teacher, thereby bringing on various electrical "punishments," even up to the danger level of 300 volts and beyond.  Many of the subjects balked at administering the higher levels of punishment, and turned to Milgram with questioning looks and/or complaints about continuing with the experiment.  In these situations, Milgram calmly explained that the teacher was to ignore the pupil's cries for mercy and carry on with the experiment.  If the subject was still reluctant to proceed, Milgram said that it was important for the sake of the experiment that the procedure be followed through to the end.  His final argument was "You have no other choice.  You must go on." What Milgram was out to discover was the number of subjects who would be willing to administer the highest levels of shock, even in the face of strong personal and moral revulsion against the rules and conditions of the experiment.

Prior to carrying out the experiment, Milgram explained his idea to a group of thirty-nine psychiatrists and asked them to predict the average percentage of people in an ordinary population who would be willing to administer the highest shock level of 450 volts.  The overwhelming consensus was that virtually all the subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter.  The psychiatrists felt that "most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts," and they expected that only 4 percent would go up to 300 volts.  Furthermore, they thought that only a pathological, sadistic, lunatic fringe of about 1 in 1,000 would give the highest shock of 450 volts.

What were the actual results? Well, over 60 percent of the subjects continued to obey Milgram up to the 450-volt limit!  In repetitions of the experiment in other countries—South Africa, Italy, West Germany, Australia—the percentage of obedient teachers was even higher, reaching 85 percent in Munich.  How can we possibly account for this vast discrepancy between what calm, rational, knowledgeable men predict in the comfort of their study, and what pressured, flustered, but cooperative "teachers" actually do in the laboratory of real life?


An excellent description of Milgram's experimental setup and results is found in the book: Koestler, A. Janus.  New York: Random House, 1978.

Koestler notes the important variation of the experiment in which Milgram allowed the subjects to inflict any level of shock they wished as a punishment for a wrong answer, rather than being compelled to use a level determined by the leader.  In this case, 38 out of the 40 subjects refused to go beyond a level of 150 volts, the level at which the pupil made his first loud cry, with the average shock administered a measly 54 volts.  Milgram's own account of these experiments can be found in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority.


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