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

Published November 24, 2017
Updated February 5, 2018

The Findings

Stanley Milgram

Yale University Manuscripts and ArchivesStanley Milgram

The groups Milgram polled before the experiments began had predicted an average of less than two percent of test subjects could be induced to deliver a fatal shock to an unwilling participant.

In the event, 26 of the 40 subjects – 65 percent – went all the way to 450 volts. All of them had been willing to deliver 300 volts to a screaming and protesting subject in the other room.

All of the subjects raised some kind of objection during the test. However, Milgram was astounded to find out that, apparently, almost two-thirds of normal people would kill a person with electricity if a man in a lab coat tells them “it is imperative that you continue.”

Accordingly, after the initial experiment was over, he organized more tests with some variables controlled to see what importance different factors had in affecting people’s resistance to authority.

He found that people are vastly more likely to carry out atrocious acts if they can be made to feel like they have permission from some recognized authority (such as a scientist in a lab coat or a senior officer in the SS, for example), and that participants’ willingness to shock increases as they are made to feel that the authority has taken moral responsibility for the actions they commit.

Some other findings from the Milgram Experiment:

  • When instructions to shock are given by phone, rather than having the authority figure physically present in the room, compliance dropped to 20.5 percent, and many “compliant” subjects were actually cheating; they would skip shocks and pretend to have thrown the switch when they hadn’t.
  • When the subjects were made to press the victim’s hand down onto a shock plate, thus eliminating the distance of throwing an impersonal switch, compliance dropped to 30 percent.
  • When the subjects were put in the position of ordering other people – confederates who were part of the experiment staff – to throw the switches, compliance increased to 95 percent. Putting one person between the subject and the victim made it so that 9.5 out of 10 people went all the way up to the presumed-fatal shock.
  • When subjects were given “role models” to set an example of resistance, in this case, confederates who raised objections and refused to participate, compliance plunged to only 10 percent. It’s as if the subjects really wanted to stop, but needed leadership to grant moral permission to disobey an authority figure.
  • When the administrator participated without the lab coat, that is, without a uniform indicating authority, compliance fell to 20 percent.
  • Experiments held at locations separate from the prestigious Yale campus yielded less compliance, only 47.5 percent as if the perceived status of the surroundings had some conforming influence on the subjects.
Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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