H ow willing are we to do something because someone in a position of authority has told us to do it? How far are we willing to go in following the demands of that individual? Stanley Milgram (J 963, 1974) conducted a series of controversial experiments to find answers to these questions about people's obedience to authority. Obedience is a form of compliance in which people follow direct orders from someone in a position of authority. Milgram's subjects were men who had responded to an advertisement for participants in an experiment.
When the first (actual) subject arrived, he was told that the study concerned the effects of punishment on learning. After the second subject (an assistant of Milgram's) arrived, the.two men were instructed to draw slip of paper from a hat to get their assignments as either the "teacher" or the "learner." Because the drawing was rigged. the actual subject always became the teacher, and the assistant the learner. Next, the learner was strapped into a chair with protruding electrodes that looked something like an electric chair, The teacher was placed in an adjoining room and given a realistic-looking but non operative shock generator. The "generators" control panel showed levels that went from "Slight Shock" (15 volts) on the left, to "Intense Shock" (255 volts) in the middle. to "DANGER: SEVERE SHOCK" (375 volts), and finally to "XXX· (450 volts) on the right. The teacher was instructed to read aloud a pair of words and then repeat the first of the two words. At that time. the learner was supposed to respond with the second of the two words. If the learner could not provide the second word, the teacher was instructed to press the lever on the shock generator so that the learner would be punished for forgetting the word. Each time the learner gave an incorrect response. the' teacher was supposed to increase the shock level by 15 volts. The alleged purpose of the shock was to determine if punishment improves a person's memory. What was the maximum level of shock that a "teacher" was willing to infliFt on a "learner"? The learner had been instructed (in advance) to beat on the wall between him and the teacher as the experiment nucleated, pretending that he was in intense pain. The teacher was told that the shocks might be "extremely painful" but that they would cause no permanent carnage. At about 300 volts, when the learner quit responding at all to qu~stjons, the teacher often turned to the experimenter to see what he should do next. When the experi!nenter indicated that the teacher should give increasingly painful shocks, 65 percent of the teachers administered shocks all the way up to the "XXX" (450- volt) level (see ~ Figure 6.4). By this point in the process, the teachers were frequently sweating, stuttering, or biting on their lip. According to Milgram, the teachers (who were free to leave whenever they wanted to) continued in the experiment because they were being given directions by a person in a position of authority (a university scientist wearing a white coat).
What can we learn from Milgram's study? The study provides evidence that obedience to authority may be more common than most of us would like to believe. None of the "teachers" challenged the process before they had applied 300 volts. Almost two-thirds went all the way to what could have been a deadly jolt of electricity if the shock generator had been real, For many years, Milgram's findings were found to be consistent in a number of different settings and with variations in the research design (Miller, 1986). This research once again raises some questions originaly posed InChapter 2 concerning research ethics. As was true of Asch's research, Milgram's subjects were deceived about the nature of the study in which they were asked to participate. Many of them found the experiment extremely stressful. These conditions cannot be ignored by social scientists because subjects by receive lasting emotional scars from such research. It would be virtually impossible today to obtain permission to repllreplicate this experiment in a university setting.