The Milgram experiment proved that people are more likely to follow the orders of an authority figure than their own conscience in a stressful situation.
“The experiment requires that you continue. It is absolutely essential that you continue. You have no other choice, you must go on.”
These were the words spoken to participants of Yale professor Stanley Milgram’s social psychology experiment testing obedience to authority figures. Milgram’s experiment, conducted at Yale in the early 1960s, was one of the most controversial studies in the history of psychology and remains so today — 50 years since the experiment took place.
“This was a landmark study in psychology and in Yale history,” said psychology professor Jack Dovidio. “He had a profound impact on the public recognition, appreciation and, in some ways, concern of the power of psychology.”
“The Milgram experiment,” as it is now called, was designed to observe the extent to which individuals would perform acts that violated their personal conscience when under orders from an authority figure. Milgram hoped such research might explain how the German people allowed for the terrible war crimes committed in the Holocaust, Milgram wrote in his 1974 book “Obedience to Authority.”
During the experiment, a scientist — the “authority figure” — ordered participants to ask another individual a series of questions and administer increasingly painful electric shocks for every wrong answer. The intensity of the shocks started at a level of mild pain when the experiment began but could be built up to lethal doses of electricity as the experiment continued. Unbeknownst to the participant, the setup was fake — there was no real electricity shocking anyone, all other people in the experiment were actors, and the actual purpose of the study was to observe how much pain the participant would inflict under orders. Milgram found that 65 percent of participants administered the final, lethal shock.
The results of the Milgram experiment, published in the December 1963 issue of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, stunned the public, Dovidio said.
“Much of the public at the time criticized that psychology only told us things about human nature we already knew,” Dovidio said. “This showed there are a lot of things we really don’t know that are important to everyday life.”
In 1963, Milgram told the News that the experiment, which used 43 Yalies as participants and took place in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, reduced several “naturally poised” undergraduates to “twitching, stuttering wrecks, on the verge of nervous collapse.” In the process, Milgram said they proved themselves willing to obey people in positions of higher authority, even suggesting that they would agree to drop a bomb or push a button launching an atomic missile.
Milgram tested over 1,000 men from the Yale and New Haven community, some of whom he said fell into fits of “bizarre” laughter and flashed “unnatural smiles” as they pressed buttons marked “Danger: Severe Shock.”
Equally chilling as these accounts were the questions Milgram’s procedure raised about human testing in psychology. Milgram’s study incited national controversy and led in part to major human testing regulation reform from Yale administrators and the federal government.
“At the time, we didn’t have ethics committees or even consent forms for these tests,” Dovidio said. “Milgram’s study made people think more seriously about the ethics of research.”
By 1980, Yale had instituted reforms mandating that any experiment using paid subjects receive approval by a six-member Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects, and much tighter rules were put in place limiting the degree of deception that could be used in an experiment, a 1980 article in the News stated.
Throughout the reforms, Yale students did not forget Milgram’s role in the controversy. In a 1979 News article discussing potential weekend events at Yale, Arnold Schwartz ’79 suggested “The Milgram Show: Hilarious game show in which students are given a choice of flunking out of Yale or electrocuting fellow students into unconsciousness.”
In 2008 a Santa Clara University professor replicated an altered version of the experiment to see whether people today still obey orders against their consciousness. A 2008 Ohio State University study applied statistical analysis to Milgram’s data, researching which voltages were the crucial turning points in the experiment after which participants refused to deliver further shocks.