In 1961 Yale University professor Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted a psychological experiment, trying to discover how far “normal”, “average” citizens would go in their obedience to “experts”. Like most people, he had been troubled for sometime over how the German people (and their European allies) had carried out Hitler’s genocidal orders. How could such highly educated, church-going people surrender their minds, their wills, to leadership and obediently carry out mass murder? Some speculated that it was a “German thing”. You know, “the Germans are so conditioned to authority that they just mindlessly obeyed” went the argument. Dr. Milgram wondered…”what if it’s not a ‘German thing’?”
So he asked for volunteers to “help” him on an experiment. The experiment consisted of three people: the experimenter who was in charge, the volunteer who was called “the teacher”, and one more person who was called “the student.” The experimenter and the student were actually collaborating; the volunteer “teacher” did not know that the student was actually one of Dr. Milgram’s assistants.
The teacher and the student would meet, and the student would be strapped into something that would look like an electric chair. The experimenter told the teacher that he would then go to another booth and ask a series of questions. These questions were part of an experiment on how people learn, the teacher would be told. Each time the student gives a wrong answer, the teacher would press a button and administer a small electric shock to the student–in order to “encourage” him to do better the next time. And each time there would be a wrong answer, the volunteer teacher was supposed to increase the voltage.
What the teacher did not know was that the electric wire was disconnected, and the student would not be harmed at all. The protests and screams of pain from the student would all be acting; but the teacher would think it’s all real.
By the way, the volunteer teacher was told that this experiment was for “the advancement of science” and the “betterment of mankind.”
Things started off just fine, until the student gave wrong answers several times in a row. At first the shocks were harmless. Later, with the increase in voltage, the student would howl in pain and beg the teacher to stop. Many of the teachers were unnerved by the screams and asked to stop the experiment. However, the experimenter in the white lab coat–the “expert”–would prod the teacher with such commands as “please continue”, “the experiment requires that you continue”, “it is absolutely essential that you continue”, and “you have no other choice, you MUST go on.”
The experimenter would also tell the teacher that the shocks were not harming the student, in spite of the screams of pain the teacher could clearly hear coming from the other side of the wall.
Would the teachers comply to the voice and look of authority? Most did. The experiment concluded when the maximum 450 volt shock was given, and by this time the student was silent. Many of the volunteer teachers thought they had killed the student…but they obediently continued the experiment all the way to the end, trusting that the “expert” in charge knew what he was doing.
Only after it was all over was it revealed to the volunteer teacher that the student was fine; no one was shocked, no one was killed thankfully.
However, as this experiment was carried out all over the world, Dr. Milgram was disturbed to find out that some 65% of all the volunteers carried out the experiment completely, ostensibly killing their “fellow volunteer” with 450 volt electric shocks, and all for the “greater good” and the “advancement of science.” They had complete trust in the people who passed themselves off as “the experts.”
Even though they thought they were killing innocent people, “normal”, “average” people from all walks of life willingly surrendered their common sense and morals to authority figures who told them that it was all for everyone’s own good.