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The Milgram Experiment

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Stanley Milgram, a famous social psychologist, and student of Solomon Asch, conducted a controversial experiment in 1961, investigating obedience to authority (1974). The experiment was held to see if a subject would do something an authority figure tells them, even if it conflicts with their personal beliefs and morals. He even once said, “The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act (Cherry).” This essay will go over what Milgram’s intent was in this experiment and what it really did for society.

The Milgram Experiment was on obedience to authority, which raised a series of controversial and notorious social psychology experiments in which study subjects were asked to do things that conflicted with their own conscious, while being asked to obey authority. The study looked at how people would react in doing something they would normally not do when responding to the request of an authority figure. Stanley Milgram recruited the subjects by placing ads in the newspaper for 40 men; the subjects did not know they would be paired with a confederate of the experimenter who would pose as the victim (1973). In exchange for their participation, each person was paid $4.50 (Cherry). The subject and the confederate were to participate in the experiment which analyzed the effects of punishment on the ability to learn. Milgram wanted to prove whether people would obey authority figures regardless if the tasks asked to be performed were morally wrong.

Each participant took the role of a “teacher” who would then deliver a shock to the “student” every time an incorrect answer was produced. The “teachers” were asked to administer shocks ranging from fifteen volts to four hundred and fifty volts to “student”, who the subjects thought were also participants in the experiment but only actor’s. In reality the actor’s didn’t receive any shocks, but acted as if they were being hurt by the voltage (Cherry). The actors were asked to answer questions, and when an incorrect response was given the subject was told by the experimenter to give the actor a shock. (Voltage increased after each wrong answer). After a dangerous level of voltage was applied, the actors screamed out in pain, and then fell to the ground, not responding to the experimenter or the subject. Many subjects were said to show signs of distress at this point, but after being prompted by the experimenter to continue on with the experiment, and increase levels of voltage (Cherry).

Over 65% of participants continued to electrocute at lethal levels, and who is to say that most of us wouldn’t have done the same? After all, psychologists first predicted that only around 10% of people would actually follow through (Cherry). After the experiment subjects were debriefed, and told that the participants they administered shocks to were actually actors. The subjects realized the cruelty of their actions and some suffered emotional break downs. Milgram stated, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. 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 (1974).” His experiment just proved that when placed in a situation of pressure, people tend to conform to the requests of an authority figure, because they would have no responsibility over their own actions by obeying commands.

“At the time Milgram’s study was big news. Milgram explained his results by the power of the situation. This was a social psychology experiment which appeared to show, beautifully in fact, how much social situations can influence people’s behavior. The experiment set off a small industry of follow-up studies carried out in labs all around the world. Were the findings still true in different cultures? By and large the answers were that even when manipulating many different experimental variables, people were still remarkably obedient. (2007)” Between the Milgram experiment and all the other little experiments ended up raising a lot of eye brows and controversial discussions about the ethics of doing such research. Subjects were exposed to emotional stress, psychological stress and physical stress while being in the experiment (Cherry). Milgram wanted to answer questions which plagued society for a long time, such as “Was human nature inherently evil or could reasonable average people be coerced by authority into performing unnatural actions?”

Many believe the study to be unethical due to the fact that the subjects were not fully aware of what it was Milgram was doing. The subjects were deceived into believing they were causing pain and suffering to another human being, when in reality the victim was not in any suffering or pain at all. The fact that they believe they were causing pain to someone else could have caused the subject to become psychologically and emotionally distraught in the long run. The subjects were lied to when they were told the experiment was about punishment being a factor in learning, when in reality the experiment was about the subjects own obedience to authority figures. Because of the stress that a lot of the subjects experienced after the experiment, the experimental code of ethics was placed under review.

It brought so much uproar amongst the psychological world and caused the code of ethics to be reviewed and ultimately changed. The clause “No mental harm should come to participants” was added to the ethical code in the end. “Milgram’s experiment has become a classic in psychology, demonstrating the dangers of obedience. While this experiment suggests that situational variables have a stronger sway than personality factors in determining obedience, other psychologists argue that obedience is heavily influenced by both external and internal factors, such as personal beliefs and overall temperament (Cherry).” In my opinion I can see the good and bad in this experiment. I believe that Milgram proved his theory in the end. However, it is doubtful that any new experiments will be conducted on this subject due to the up roar around it. In the end it’s up to each individual to make their own opium on it and decide what it means to them with only the results we have.

Works Cited

Cherry, K. (2012). The Milgram Obedience Experiment, The Perils of Obedience. About.com Guide, http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/milgram.htm

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. Harpercollins

Milgram, S. (1973). The perils of obedience. Harper’s Magazine, 62-77.

N/A. (2007). Stanley Milgram: Obedience to Authority Or Just Conformity? http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/02/stanley-milgram-obedience-to-authority.php

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