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Milgram's Experiment: The Conflict Between Obedience and Conscience


Following World War Two and the extensive war crimes committed by the Nazi Party, came the infamous Nuremberg Trials; consisting of thirteen consecutive trials in Nuremberg, Germany between 1945 and 1949. These trials served the purpose of bringing those grim crimes committed by the Nazi war criminals to justice, the defendants in said trial varied from high-ranking officials to lawyers, doctors and military personnel that had been charged with disturbing international peace and violating humanitarian laws. This trial became a historical mark as the first international trial of war crimes despite its many failures and controversies, the biggest controversy being the argument provided by many of the accused; that they had just been following orders.


This highly disputed claim that had disrupted the confidence and understanding of the war and how black and white it was led to one of the most famous and also controversial experiments to date. Following Adolf Eichmann's trial, a high ranking Nazi officer often tributed as one of the main architects of the Holocaust, in April of 1961, came the question; "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them accomplices?", as said by Millgram himself. This question raised by Stanley Millgram, a psychologist in Yale University, led to what is now known as the Millgram Experiment in 1962 where he examined the justifications for the genocide the defendents had offered in court. The aim of the experiment would be to understand and discover how far people would go in obeying commands even if it involved harming another; whether any ordinary person could potentially be the one who had committed these cruel acts during the war.

In order for the experiment to happen successfully, Stanley Milgram began by selecting male participants from the newspaper, advertising it as a study of learning in Yale University. The participants involved 40 males from the age range of 20 to 50 years old with different ranges of jobs, they would be offered $4.50 for showing up to the experiment. In this experiment two people would be paired and they would then draw lots to be either the "learner" or the "teacher". The pick itself wasn't as random as participants had originally thought as Milgram rigged it. In reality, the teacher would always be one of the random people that had signed up from the newspaper and the learner would be one of Milgram's confederates as they pretended to be actual participants. The pair would then go into two different rooms, one in which the learner would sit in an electric chair and be fully strapped down and the other room would have the teacher experimenting with an electric shock generator. It is important to understand that the teacher would not be able to see the learner, only hear him and that the shocks were never delivered to the learner, they were all acting.


The instructions were clear; the learner was required to memorise certain pairs of words and the teacher would test his ability to recall the words. The instructors then informed the teachers that they would manage the electric shock, and whenever the learner would get it wrong the participant was required to increase the shock level; in the electric shock generator there were 30 settings varying from 15 volts which were a slight shock to 450 volts meaning, severe shock. Meanwhile the learner had been informed to give mainly wrong answers so the teacher would be required to increase the voltage of the shock, if the teacher began to refuse the instructor were directed to give a series of orders and make sure the teacher continued. The orders were set and followed as so; "Please continue", "The experiment requires you to continue", "It is absolutely essential you continue" and "You have no other choice but to continue". This experiment was repeated in 18 different variations to confirm Milgram's thesis, such as a change of location rather than Yale (obedience dropped 47.5%), change in uniform for the instructor (obedience dropped 20%), a condition in which the teacher had to force the learner's hand down if the learner refused (obedience fell 30%) and many more.

The results of this experiment shocked many, with 65% of the participants reaching the full 450 volts, keeping in mind this level of electricity to a human is extremely dangerous, and all participants reaching at least 300 volts. Stanley Millgram concluded with this experiment that ordinary people were more likely to follow orders given by authority figures to the point of potentially killing another innocent life. It was deducted that obedience to authority had been ingrained in the human mindset all the way from our upbringing and society's hierarchical organisation. Milgram later on wrote in his conclusion "The Perils of Obedience" (1974); "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.". His conclusions however can be extremely debated as many circumstances could have impacted the results such as the fact that Milgram's test only consisted of males, that the sample of people was self-selected and could not represent all of America, and Milgram's experiment lacked 'experimental realism'. Since Milgram, many different cultures have replicated similar investigations and a majority have led to similar conclusions, however, it is important to remember that there should be caution before concluding that Milgram's results share a universal consensus.

The experiment in itself proved to be quite controversial due to the amount of stress teachers had undergone during the experiment with clear signs of tensions being displayed in all participants such as trembling, sweating, stuttering and some participants even pleading the experiment to stop and undergoing uncontrollable seizures. Many also argued Milgram gave no space and freedom for participants to fully leave the experiment due to the circumstances of the experiment, as if you refused the instructors would order you to stay, Milgrem argued it was justified due to the nature of said research. Despite the multiple ethical issues that arose with the experiment, many conclusions had been made although not substantial enough, leaving the question seemingly unanswered. Do you believe this is enough to understand the nature of mankind? Was the experiment truly biassed?


In case you would like to know more about the experiment and see live footage this is the link to the documentary:


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