by Rachael Clemente
Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, paid careful attention to the works of Solomon Asch and his studies on conformity. Asch was famous for having seven planted participants and one actual participant sit in a room and answer a simple question: “Which of these lines is longer?” The dummy participants would all answer individually initially but after a while began unanimously picking the wrong answer.
Asch found that a third of the time the actual participant would also agree with the group, even when the correct answer was blatantly obvious. Milgram was intrigued by his studies and he wanted to try his own but also push the envelope. In 1961 he decided to find out exactly how far a normal human being would go in hurting someone based on humans’ desire to be obedient.
Milgram set up his experiment so that there was one actual participant dubbed “the teacher” and one planted participant dubbed “the learner”. They were introduced and told that they would both be taking part in a study on punishment/reward and its effects on learning. They were told that one would be a “learner” and have to memorize word pairings, and the other would be a “teacher” who would either respond that the learner was correct and continue on, or deliver an electric shock for a wrong answer. For each wrong answer the strength of the shock would increase.
The “teacher” watched as the “learner” was strapped into a chair and had electrodes placed on their body. The “learner” at this point makes a statement concerning a mild heart condition which is acknowledged by the experimenter as the real participant watched. The “teacher” was then led out of the room into a separate lab area where they could presumably hear the “learner” in the other room.
The electric shock machine was a fake and a tape recording of the “learner” was played simulating actual responses. After wrong answers the “teacher” would hear protests, yelps of pain, and demands the experiment stop. The experimenter was to verbally persuade and demand the “teacher” continue if they showed any hesitance. The perceived voltage of the shocks would go up by 15 volts with each wrong answer to a max of 450 where the “learner” would cease responding, indicating possible death or unconsciousness. The “teacher” would have to defy the experimenter’s commands if they wanted to stop and save the “learner”.
Before Milgram began he polled his colleagues, students, and other doctors. They all unanimously agreed that only a small fraction – a “lunatic fringe” – would go on to the full 450 volts. So it was understandably surprising when it turned out around 60% of participants in the experiment did just that. Read more