The 1960s and 1970s appeared to be the high-water mark for social psychology. During that time, many famous experiments were conducted that we are still learning lessons from to this day. Among some of the most famous moments of this era was in 1963, when psychologist Stanley Milgram performed his famous “ambience to authority” experiments.
Occurring only less than two decades after WWII, Milgram became fascinated with how far people would go to follow authority. In order to investigate this question, Milgram devised a number of experiments in which the experimenter (the researcher) would give commands to “the teacher” (the true test subject of the experiment) to give electric shocks to “the learner.” According to popular psychology writer Adam Hart-Davis, “the first shock was only 15 volts, but they went up to higher and higher voltages—30 volts, 45 volts, 60 volts, and so on up to 420 volts . . .”
It is important to note that the teacher was not told that the shocks were, in fact, fake. But the point of the experiment was to see how far the teacher would go in administering pain to the learner when being instructed to do so by the experimenter. When the volts increased, and the learner (who was an actor) began to yell in pain, the teacher would usually start to question the experimenter, who would reply: “Please go on,” “The experiment requires that you continue,” “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” and, finally, “You have no other choice; you must go on.”
What Milgram discovered was that “none of the teachers stopped below 300 volts, and no fewer than 26 carried right to the final 450-volt shock.” So, in other words, many of the test subjects continued to administer electric shocks to the other person, simply because they were told to do so.
The implications for Milgram’s research have been profound.
Hart-Davis writes: “In the twenty-first century prison guars from the Nazi death camps are still being hunted down and tried for war crimes, but were they just obeying orders? Groups of soldiers from many nationalities have been accused of hideous atrocious . . . but were they just obeying instructions from their superior officers? If so, does this relieve them of responsibility of their actions?”
There remain no easy answers to questions such as these. Humans are highly social animals and also remain very hierarchical—despite our aptitude for higher-level thinking. And many individuals most of the time must answer to authority whether in an office or on a battlefield. That said although there may be good reasons to submit to authority, in extreme cases, this impulse can have disastrous consequences. Finally, one of the lessons that can be drawn from Milgram is that individuals must be aware of when that line is crossed.
Hart-Davis, A. (2015). Pavlov’s Dogs: Groundbreaking Experiments in Psychology. Metro Books, New York, NY.