How The Milgram Experiment Showed That Everyday People Could Commit Monstrous Acts

Published November 24, 2017
Updated February 5, 2018

The Milgram experiment sought to find out how easily the average person could be induced to commit heinous crimes under orders. They found out — with disturbing results.

Milgram Experiment Subject

Yale University Manuscripts and ArchivesParticipants in one of Stanley Milgram’s experiments regarding obedience to authority.

In April 1961, former SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann went on trial for crimes against humanity in an Israeli courtroom.

Throughout his trial, which ended with a conviction and death sentence, Eichmann had tried to defend himself on the grounds he was “only following orders.” Over and over, he asserted that he was not a “responsible actor,” but a servant of those who were, and so he should be held morally blameless for just doing his duty and organizing the logistics of shipping people to the Nazi camps during the war.

This defense didn’t work in court and he was convicted on all counts. However, the idea of an unwilling-but-obedient participant in mass murder captured the interest of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, who wanted to know how easily morally normal people could be induced to commit heinous crimes under orders.

To examine the matter, Milgram polled dozens of people for their opinions. Without exception, every group he asked for predictions thought it would be difficult to get people to commit serious crimes just by ordering them to.

Only three percent of the Yale students Milgram polled said they thought an average person would willingly kill a stranger just because they were told to. A poll of colleagues on the staff of a medical school was similar, with only around four percent of faculty psychologists guessing test subjects would knowingly kill a person on the experimenter’s say-so.

In July 1961, Milgram set out to discover the truth for himself by devising an experiment, the results of which are still controversial.

The Milgram Experiment Setup

Milgram Experiment Setup

Yale University Manuscripts and ArchivesEquipment for the Milgram experiment.

The experiment Milgram set up required three people to make it work. One person, the test subject, would be told he was participating in a memorization experiment, and that his role would be to administer a series of electric shocks to a stranger whenever he failed to correctly answer a question.

In front of the subject was a long board with 30 switches labeled with increasing voltage levels, up to 450 volts. The last three had high-voltage warnings pasted on them.

Milgram Experiment Setup Illustration

Wikimedia CommonsIllustration of the setup of a Milgram experiment. The experimenter (E) convinces the subject (“Teacher” T) to give what he believes are painful electric shocks to another subject, who is actually an actor (“Learner” L).

The second participant was actually a confederate, who would briefly chat with the test subject before moving to an adjacent room and connecting a tape recorder to the electrical switches to play recorded shouts and screams as the shocks were delivered.

The third participant was a man in a white lab coat, who sat behind the test subject and pretended to administer the test to the confederate in the next room.

The Execution

Students Of The Milgram Experiment

Yale University Manuscripts and ArchivesParticipants in the Milgram experiment.

At the beginning of the experiment, the test subject would be given a quick shock from the apparatus on its lowest power level. Milgram included this to ensure the subject knew how painful the shocks were; to make the pain of a shock “real” to the subject before proceeding.

As the experiment got underway, the administrator would give the unseen confederate a series of memorization problems requiring an answer. When the confederate gave the wrong answer, the administrator would instruct the subject to flip the next switch in the sequence, delivering progressively higher voltage.

When the switch was thrown, the tape recorder would play a yelp or a scream, and at higher levels, the confederate would start pounding on the wall and demanding to be set free. He was given scripted lines about having a heart condition.

After the seventh shock, he would go completely silent to give the impression he had either passed out or died. When this happened, the administrator would continue with his questions.

Getting no response from the “unconscious” confederate, the administrator told the subject to apply higher and higher shocks, up to the last, 450-volt switch, which was colored red and labeled as potentially lethal.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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