Blind Obedience: the Milgram Experiment

Why does a person obey? To what extent can a person follow an order that goes against their morals?

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Why does a person obey? To what extent can a person follow an order that goes against their morals? These and other questions may perhaps be solved through the Milgram experiment (1963) or at least, that was the intention of this psychologist.

We are facing one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology, and also more transcendental for the revolution that supposed its conclusions in the idea that we had until that moment of the human being. Especially gave us a very powerful explanation to understand why good people can sometimes become very cruel. Are you ready to know the Milgram experiment?

The Milgram experiment on blind obedience

Before analyzing obedience let’s talk about how the Milgram experiment was done. First, Milgram published an advertisement in the newspaper demanding participants for a psychological study in exchange for a pay. When the subjects arrived at the laboratory of Yale University, they were told that they would participate in an investigation about learning.

In addition, their role in the study was explained to them: to ask another subject about a list of words to evaluate their memory.

Actually, this situation was a farce that hid the real experiment. The subject thought he was asking questions of another subject who was actually an accomplice of the researcher. The subject’s mission was to ask the accomplice questions about a list of words he had previously memorized. In case of hitting, it would go to the next word; In case of failure our subject would have to give an electric shock to the accomplice of the investigator (in fact no downloads were applied, but the subject thought yes).

The subject was told that the download machine consisted of 30 levels of intensity. For every mistake that the infiltrator made, he had to increase the force of the discharge in one. Before starting the experiment, the accomplice was already given several minor downloads, which the accomplice already simulated as annoying.

At the beginning of the experiment, the accomplice answers the subject’s questions correctly and without any problem. But as the experiment progresses it begins to fail and the subject has to apply the discharges. The accomplice’s performance was as follows: when level 10 of intensity was reached he had to start complaining about the experiment and wanting to quit, at level 15 of the experiment he would refuse to answer the questions and would show with determination the opposition to it. When you reach level 20 of intensity, you would fake a faint and therefore the inability to answer the questions.

At all times the researcher urges the subject to continue the test; even when the accomplice is supposedly passed out, considering the absence of response as an error. So that the subject does not fall into the temptation to abandon the experiment, the researcher reminds the subject that he is committed to reaching the end and that all responsibility for what happens is his, the researcher.

Now I ask you a question, how many people do you think reached the last level of intensity (a level of discharge in which many people would die)? And how many reached the level where the accomplice faints? Well, we go with the results of these “obedient criminals”.

Results of the Milgram experiment

Before performing the experiments, Milgram asked some psychiatric colleagues to make a prediction of the results. The psychiatrists thought that the majority of the subjects would abandon the first complaint of the accomplice, about 4 percent would reach the level in which simulates fainting, and that only some pathological case, one in a thousand, would reach the maximum (Milgram, 1974 ).

This prediction was totally wrong, the experiments showed unexpected results. Of the 40 subjects of the first experiment, 25 reached the end. On the other hand, about 90% of the participants reached at least the level at which the accomplice faints (Milgram, 1974). The participants obeyed the researcher in everything, even though some of them showed high levels of stress and rejection, they continued to obey.

Milgram was told that the sample could be biased, but this study has been widely replicated with different samples and designs that we can consult in the Milgram book (2016) and all of them have offered similar results. Even an experiment in Munich, the researcher found results that 85 percent of the subjects reached the maximum level of discharges (Milgram, 2005).

Shanab (1978) and Smith (1998), show us in their studies that the results are generalizable to any country of western culture. Even so, we must be careful when thinking that we are facing a universal social behavior: trans-cultural research does not show conclusive results.

Conclusions from the Milgram experiment

The first question we ask ourselves after seeing these results is, why did people obey up to those levels? In Milgram (2016) there are multiple transcripts of subjects’ conversations with the researcher. In them we observed that most subjects felt bad about their behavior, so it can not be cruelty that moves them. The answer may lie in the “authority” of the researcher, in whom the subjects really relegate responsibility for what happens.

Through the variations of the Milgram experiment a series of factors that affected obedience were extracted:

  • The role of the researcher: the presence of a researcher dressed in a gown, makes the subjects give him an authority associated with his professionalism and therefore are more obedient to the researcher’s requests.
  • The perceived responsibility: this is the responsibility that the subject believes to have over his acts. When the researcher tells him that he is responsible for the experiment, the subject sees his responsibility diluted and it is easier for him to obey.
  • The consciousness of a hierarchy: those subjects who had a strong feeling towards the hierarchy were able to see themselves above the accomplice, and below the researcher; therefore they gave more importance to the orders of their “boss” than to the welfare of the accomplice.
  • The feeling of commitment: the fact that the participants had committed themselves to carry out the experiment made it impossible for them to oppose it.
  • The rupture of empathy: when the situation forces the depersonalization of the accomplice, we see how the subjects lose empathy towards him and it is easier for them to act with obedience.

These factors alone do not lead a person to obey blindly a person, but the sum of them generates a situation in which obedience becomes very likely regardless of the consequences. The Milgram experiment shows us again an example of the strength of the situation that Zimbardo (2012) is talking about. If we are not aware of the strength of our context, this can push us to behave outside of our principles.

People obey blindly because the pressure of the aforementioned factors outweighs the pressure that the personal conscience can exert to get out of that situation. This helps us explain many historical events, such as the great support to the fascist dictatorships of the last century or more concrete events, such as the behavior and explanations of the doctors who helped the extermination of the Jews during the Second World War in the Nuremberg trials.

The sense of obedience

Whenever we see behaviors that go beyond our expectations, it is interesting to ask what causes them. Psychology gives us a very interesting explanation of obedience. Part of the basis that the decision made by a competent authority with the intention of favoring the group has more adaptive consequences for it than if the decision had been the product of a discussion of the whole group.

Imagine a society under the command of an authority that is not questioned in front of a society where any authority is put on trial. Having no control mechanisms, logically the first will be much faster than the second executing decisions: a very important variable that can determine victory or defeat in a conflict situation. This is also closely related to the theory of social identity of Tajfel (1974), for more information here.

Now, what can we do in the face of blind obedience? Authority and hierarchy may be adaptive in certain contexts, but that does not legitimize blind obedience to an immoral authority. Here we face a problem, if we achieve a society in which any authority is questioned we will have a healthy and just community, but that will fall before other societies with which it enters into conflict due to its slowness when making decisions.

At the individual level, if we want to avoid falling into blind obedience, it is important to keep in mind that any of us can fall under the pressures of the situation. For this reason, the best defense we have before them is to be aware of how the factors of the context affect us; so when these will overcome us, we can try to regain control and not delegate, however great the temptation, a responsibility that corresponds to us.

Experiments like this help us a lot to reflect on the human being. They allow us to see that the dogmas as the human being is good or bad, are far from explaining our reality. It is necessary to shed light on the complexity of human behavior in order to understand the reasons for it. Knowing this will help us understand our history and not repeat certain actions.