Human obedience is a fascinating area to study. It is much easier to say “yes sir, yes sir, three bags full,” than being constructively critical on a matter. How can such a scenario be linked with electric shocks?
A strange connection between electric shocks and human obedience formed the basis for a fundamental study. Today’s column is all about what Professor Milgram did with electricity shocks, which now is acclaimed as one of the most significant experiments on human obedience. Let’s look at the Milgram experiment in detail.
If a person in a position of authority ordered you to deliver a 400-volt electrical shock to another person, would you follow orders? Most people would answer this question with an adamant no. But that was not the case with “Milgram experiments”.
Professor Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defence often was based on “obedience” – that they were just following orders of their superiors.
The experiments began in July 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised the experiment to answer the question “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?”
Milgram wanted to investigate whether Germans were particularly obedient to authority figures as this was a common explanation for the Nazi killings in World War II.
Milgram selected participants for his experiment by advertising for male participants to take part in a study of learning at Yale University. The procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher’. The draw was fixed so that the p
articipant was always the teacher, and the learner was one of Milgram’s confederates (pretending to be a real participant).
The learner (a confederate called Mr. Wallace) was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms, and the teacher and researcher went into a room next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX).
Purpose: Milgram was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person. He was keen to know how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities for example, Germans in World War II.
Procedure: Volunteers were recruited for a lab experiment that was supposed to investigate how “learning” takes place. Participants were 40 males, aged between 20 and 50, whose jobs ranged from unskilled to professional. In exchange for their participation, each person was paid $ 4.50.
At the beginning of the experiment they were introduced to another participant, who was actually a confederate of the experimenter (Milgram). They drew straws to determine their roles – leaner or teacher – although this was fixed and the confederate always ended to the learner. There was also an “experimenter” dressed in a white lab coat, played by an actor (someone selected by Milgram).
The “learner” (Mr. Wallace) was strapped to a chair in another room with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word pairs given him to learn, the “teacher” tests him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices.
The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock). The shocks were said to be painful, not dangerous.
The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose) and for each of these the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock and turned to the experimenter for guidance, he was given the standard instruction/order (consisting of four prods):
Prod 1: Please continue.
Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.
Results: Two-thirds of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. Also, all the participants continued to 300 volts. Milgram did more than one experiment – he carried out 18 variations of his study. All he did was altering the situation to see how this affected obedience.
While Milgram’s research raised serious ethical questions about the use of human subjects in psychology experiments, his results have also been consistently replicated in further experiments. Thomas Blass (1999) reviewed further research on obedience and found that Milgram’s findings hold true in other experiments.
The experiments were also controversial, and considered by some scientists to be unethical and physically or psychologically abusive. Psychologist Diana Baumrind considered the experiment “harmful because it may cause permanent psychological damage and cause people to be less trusting in the future.” Such criticism motivated more thorough review boards and committee reviews for working with human subjects.
What does this all mean for us? Let us look at the implications.
Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Stephen Spielberg showed this to the world by his award winning movie, Shindler’s List, involving the torture camps of Nazi Germans.
Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up. Obey parents, teachers, anyone in authority, etc. Milgram summed up in the article ‘The Perils of Obedience’ (Milgram 1974), writing:
“The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”
Relevance to us
Why did so many of the participants in this experiment perform a seemingly sadistic act on the instruction of an authority figure? According to Milgram, there are a number of situational factors that can explain such high levels of obedience:
nThe physical presence of an authority figure dramatically increased compliance.
nThe fact that the study was sponsored by Yale (a trusted and authoritative academic institution) led many participants to believe that the experiment must be safe.
nThe selection of teacher and learner status seemed random.
nParticipants assumed that the experimenter was a competent expert.
Later experiments conducted by Milgram indicated that the presence of rebellious peers dramatically reduced obedience levels. When other people refused to go along with the experimenters orders, 36 out of 40 participants refused to deliver the maximum shocks.
From Milgram to managers
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process, said Milgram. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
The key relevance here is the use and abuse of power. Managers can influence their associates in either positive or negative manner. One can be dictatorial in giving orders without proper reasoning, and the subordinates are treated as “sub-human beings”. People will follow orders through fear.
Milgram experiments invite us to relook at the way we exercise our influence over others. It is an invitation for soul-searching, particularly for managers. The debate of discipline through punishment versus discipline through values continues to linger in our workplaces. Mileage from Milgram will help us to make the right move.
(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is the Acting Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Division of Management and Entrepreneurship, Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, USA.)