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Milgram On Obedience To Authority

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Those who responded to Yale University’s advertisement were told that they would be participating in a study of the relationship between punishment and learning. Each volunteer acted as a teacher, putting questions to a pupil. For each incorrect answer, the teacher was required to give the pupil an electric shock. The intensity of the shock was increased with each mistake, from a 15-volt tingle to a whacking 450 volts.

Teacher and pupil, in a basic version of the experiment, sat in separate rooms; the teacher could hear but not see the pupil. As the voltage was stepped up, the pupil’s response would escalate from a grunt to a shout to a painful groan to “an agonized scream”. Finally, ominously, there would be silence. If the teacher tried to halt, the scientist overseeing the experiment would urge, “Please continue,” or, “The experiment requires that you continue.”

It was a hoax. There were no electric shocks and the pupil supposedly in pain in the other room was an actor.

What the social psychologist Stanley Milgram first described in 1963 was actually an investigation of obedience to authority – the extent to which people will do what they’re told, simply because they’re told.

A minority of teachers rebelled against the experiment and refused to administer strong shocks; many, despite hesitancy and obvious anguish, delivered what they believed were severe shocks to the pupils; some appeared to positively relish flipping the switches on the shock generator.

The readiness of some people to inflict pain on others was not a complete surprise. What was appalling and astounding about Milgram’s experiment was the proportion of volunteers who, without coercion and with little or no prompting, were prepared to inflict potentially fatal electric shocks – not one-tenth or one-fifth of the volunteers, but almost two-thirds of them.

Source: Lauren Slater, Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the 20th Century (2004), p. 33ff

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