How far do you think you would go if you were ordered by a high authority to hurt someone? Hopefully, you imagine that you would not comply, and would refuse to harm another person just because you were told to. However, the results of a study by Stanley Milgram suggests otherwise.
In the 1960’s, when ethical considerations regarding experiments were not so stringent, Milgram set out to discover whether people would blindly follow the lead of an authority figure, despite the consequences of harm to someone else.
40 subjects were paid to take part in the experiment. However, the money they were given did not make a difference to the results obtained, as they were paid just for arriving to take part, and not for the experiment itself. This fact was made clear to them so that their motivation was not to be colored by a financial reward.
The subjects were told that the experiment concerned teachers and a learner and was about memory. They were to teach, while the learner was to be administered electric shocks by them whenever his memory failed him and he produced an incorrect answer to questions.
The learner was in fact, secretly in on the act, and no real shocks were administered. However, the teachers were unaware of this, and believed they were sending shocks to the man. Each time he replied incorrectly to a question, they pushed a button they thought delivered a shock.
Occasionally, as the shock levels increased, and they went as high as 450 volts as far as the teachers knew, a teacher would question a higher authority who would tell them to continue. They were absolved of guilt verbally by the authority, who reported that if anything happened to the learner they would not be to blame.
Surprisingly, shocks were delivered even when the learner yelled out in pain, and when he fell silent, suggesting that he had passed out because of the shocks. 25 teachers followed orders blindly, although the learner told them he had trouble with his heart. The other 15 administered shocks, but stopped before the highest level of voltage was achieved.
Milgrams experiment helped reveal why people during wartime commit atrocities when a higher authority tells them to. It would seem that they are programmed this way. Most of us would hope that we would not behave in the same manner as the teachers in Milgrams experiment, but the study revealed that more often than not, people probably would.
What can we learn from this experiment? You could decide that all you have learned is that following orders comes naturally to us. Alternatively, you could begin to question whether authority figures in your life are always correct and ethical, and recognize that you have a choice about what you do. It could be that sometimes you know better than someone in a military uniform or a white coat.