Let’s say you see a newspaper ad saying the psychology department at Yale is running a little “experiment on memory.” Paid volunteers are needed for the hour-long study, so you figure why not?
Upon arrival at the lab, you meet two men — a research scientist in a lab coat, and another volunteer just like yourself. The researcher proceeds to explain the study to you both.
He tells you the study is about the effects of punishment on memory. The task of the other volunteer will be to learn a series of word pairings (he’s called the “Learner”).
Your job as the “Teacher” will be to test the Learner’s memory of the word
pairs, and administer electric shocks for each wrong answer. And for every new wrong answer, the voltage goes up.
You’re not sure about this whole thing, but it must be okay, right? The testing begins, and when the other volunteer misses a question, you pull a lever that delivers a mild shock.
Over time, though, the shock levels increase, and the Learner is grunting
audibly. At 120 volts, he tells you the shocks are really starting to hurt. At 150 volts, he tries to quit. The researcher tells you to keep going, and that the shocks will cause “no permanent tissue damage” to the Learner. You continue questioning and delivering punishment for incorrect answers.
At 165 volts, the Learner screams.
At 300 volts, the Learner refuses to respond any longer, as the shocks are
impairing his mental capacities. The researcher tells you to treat non responses as incorrect answers.
The Learner is screeching, kicking, and pleading for mercy with every
subsequent shock, all the way up to 450 volts when the researcher finally
This couldn’t possibly have really happened, right? Well, actually, it did, in 1963 at Yale, during a series of experiments by Stanley Milgram.
But here’s the real scoop about the Milgram experiment:
• there were no actual electric shocks
• the Learner was an actor
• the study had nothing to do with memory.
What Milgram wanted to know was how far the Teachers would go when told
to continue to deliver those shocks, since they thought they really were.
About two-thirds (65%) of the subjects administered every shock up to
450 volts, no matter how much the Learner begged for mercy. Without the
researcher’s encouragement to continue, however, the study found that the
test subjects would have stopped giving punishment quite early on.
The results shocked the Yale faculty (no pun intended), and have become a
part of modern psychological lore. Every aspect of the experiment had been
carefully vetted to pull test subjects from a standard cross section of ages,
occupations, and education levels. In other words, these were not sadistic
savages — these were people just like you and me.
A 2002 analysis of the original study confirms the findings.
What could possibly lead to this behavior?
Milgram concluded it’s our deep-seated sense of duty to authority. We’re
trained from childhood to respect and trust authority figures (such as
scientists in lab coats), and the obedience that comes with it stays with us
throughout our lives.
Even when we feel something may not be quite right