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The Milgram Experiment


The Milgram experiment was a famous study devised by Stanley Milgram whilst at Yale in 1961. He was intrigued after watching the Nuremberg Trials whether it took a certain type of person to follow orders and commit horrendous acts. The experiment involved an actor and a subject who were told they would be participating in an experiment to see the impact on punishment in assisting memory. The subject would always be designated as the “teacher” and the actor would be the “learner”. The “learner” was strapped into what looked like an electric chair. They were then visually separated but able to communicate. The “teacher” would test the “learner” and the memory test. Each time they got it wrong the voltage was increased. The shocks go up 450 volts which could be fatal. The actor appears to become more and more distressed with the increased voltage and were given scripts to respond at each level - at the 1/2 way point the actor shouted "Ugh!! Experimenter! That’s all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me now. Get me out of here, please. My heart’s starting to bother me. I refuse to go on. Let me out!". If the “teacher” expressed reluctance to continue with the experiment the experimenter would encourage them to continue. The experiment would end when that “teacher” had administered a fatal shock 3 times or the “teacher” made 4 separate objections to the continuation of the experiment.

Before conducting the test, Milgram explained the protocol to college students, middle-class adults, and psychiatrists and 100% of all of them said they would not administer a fatal dose if asked. They then were asked to estimate how many other people would be likely to use the highest end of the shock scale and they consistently estimated only around 2-3% of subjects would be prepared to do so. The expectations were that the vast majority of people wouldn't just follow orders and do something so heinous. This was not long after the War and there was lots of xenophobia entrenched with the presumption that the German people during Nazi rule were complicit because of their nature. The assumption was that upstanding Americans couldn't be persuaded to cause harm to another person when ordered to do so. The results showed that 65% of participants administered the potentially fatal shock. Pretty much everyone objected and appealed to the experimenter to stop the experiment but they were reassured that there was no permanent damage caused by the shocks and despite the “learners” distress they must continue. This helped Milgram form ideas about conformism, where humans in a crisis, if they feel unqualified to help, will conform to leaders and follow their instructions.

There have been criticisms of Milgram’s work since the time of publication. The first point is obviously an ethical one. Making people think they have caused real harm is a shitty thing to do. There have also been replications of the study, including the Derren Brown show 'The Heist' which used a replication of the Milgram study to see how receptive participants were. 50% of those participating administered the highest dose. There was also a suggestion that not everyone participating in Milgram’s original study fully bought into the scenario so not everyone really believed they were hurting someone. Though there are criticism of the work it was groundbreaking and helped rectify assumptions about how people respond to authority. Being aware of this weakness as humans can help us be less susceptible to authorities manipulating us. Also helps us understand that nearly anyone can be convinced to behave awfully in the right conditions. We're all as fallible as each other.

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