The Milgram Experiment

Doctor looking at X-rays. (Reza Estakhrian/Getty Images)

Stanley Milgram was born on August 3, 1933 in New York City to Jewish parents, and throughout his childhood, he heard the stories of family members who had survived the Nazi concentration camps and became acutely interested in how something like the Holocaust could happen. He went on to study psychology, eventually earning a degree from Harvard University, and got a job as a professor at Yale in the '60s.

Following Orders

In 1961, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi member and so-called "architect of the Holocaust," captured the attention of the public, especially Milgram. Eichmann's main defense was that he was simply "following orders," which inspired Milgram to explore the concept of authority. He wanted to study how ordinary people, like German soldiers had been before the war, could be convinced to murder innocents.

Hitler proclaims the Anschluss on the Heldenplatz, Vienna, March 15, 1938. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0922-500/CC-BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons)

The Milgram Experiment

Milgram advertised his experiment as a study of the brain's ability to form memories and an opportunity to earn some extra cash. Two participants at a time were invited into a room, where they drew their roles at random. One was the "teacher," who was moved to a room with a small box which controlled an electric shock chair, and the other the "learner," who was strapped into the chair and asked to pair certain words together. Although the teacher could not see the learner, they could hear one another and speak freely. The teacher was then instructed to administer an electric shock for every wrong answer, increasing every new shock by 15 volts.

Of course, the "learner" was actually an actor, the "random selection" hadn't been random at all, and no real shocks were ever delivered. But the "teacher" didn't know that, and the actor gave them no reason to suspect it. Initially, Milgram believed almost no one would continue to shock the learner after he began screaming, but his published results showed that many not only continued, 65% administered fatal shocks of 450 volts even after the actor begged for his life and eventually fell silent, just because a man in a lab coat told them they had no choice but to continue. Even many of those who protested and showed great distress at hurting another human continued to administer dangerous levels of shocks.

Setup of the Milgram experiment. (Fred the Oyster/Wikimedia Commons)

Revisiting Milgram's Experiment

Milgram's experiment became famous for its illustration of humanity's willingness to obey against their desires, even when it results in the death of another human being, but it's also been roundly criticized. Many have questioned the ethics of convincing participants they had tortured another person and subjecting them to the emotional distress resulting from such an experience, and a later examination of Milgram's data uncovered evidence that only about half the participants actually believed the experiment was real, and of those who did, mant refused to continue at some point. Still, the experiment has been replicated by many other psychologists around the world, all with terrifyingly similar results.