Monday, September 8, 2014

Milgram Experiment : An inquiry into Obedience

Milgram Experiment was conducted by Stanley Milgram, who was the Professor of Psychologist in Yale University. It is considered as one of the most important experiments in the area of Psychology, which looked into the question of obedience and role of authorities. The experiments were done in 1961 and published by Milgram in 1963 and further in 1974 book, 'Obedience to Authority- An Experimental View'.

The experiment was a simple set-up where there were three people involved. The set-up involved a participant acting as a teacher and asking the students a set of questions. On every wrong answer, the teacher is supposed to give a shock to the student. The shock level increases from 15 V to 450 V. The third person, the lab assistant acted as an anchor and did the role of authority figure. In the set-up, the student was always decided to be one of the person from the team. The participant was always made the teacher.

Let's see how the whole thing works? If I would have been a participant than I would see an advertisement the in local newspaper about the opportunity to participate and would get paid at $4.00. So I would go to the university to participate in the experiment. When I reach there, I would see one more guy waiting to participate in the experiment. His name is Mr. Wallace. A Professor comes in his lab jacket and tells that the study is about understanding more about memory. Than he tells that, based on a lucky draw,one of us will the be teacher and another one will the be participant. I always become the teacher and the other guy participant. Now I am being told that, I have to ask a set of questions to the student, the other guy. On every wrong answer, I will have to give a shock to the participant. The shock will start from 15 V and will rise till 450 V. I could not see the participant but could hear his voice. I start asking the question and the student have wrong answers. I will start increasing the shock level. If I would hesitate, the Professor looking guy would say me in sequence the following statements:
  • Please continue.
  • The experiment requires that you continue.
  • It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  • You have no other choice, you must go on.

The results: More than 65% continued to the 450 V level. Everyone of them continued till 300 V. Later on, I would find the student was also an accomplice of the experiment team.

Milgram was looking into the role of authority while doing this experiment. This was also related to the trial of Adolf Eichmann in the second world war. Can subordinates do holocaust by following the order of authorities? 

There were many variations to original experiment from letting the teacher see the student in pain to giving orders via phone. Invariably, it concluded that people have a tendency to obey authorities. The study has been quite consistent along time and cultures so it points to more fundamental traits of human behaviour.

This experiment raises many question about how the human society is structured and set-up. People obeying authorities without any resistance can perform actions which can result in high level of destruction and extreme harms to other humans. We have many examples of the same in human history.  There are umpteen examples of military forces of one side dropping bombs of massive destruction on the innocent people of enemy countries. What is the psychological state of that particular guy just before dropping the bomb. Even people have inflicted great damage to their own countrymen on the order of authorities.

There is also a different perspective to this. What happens if people have a tendency to disobey authorities in general? How the society will get structured? How the concept of authorities will be decided? Will it create more anarchy. For example, capital punishment is done in many countries. What happens, if the person executing the punishment refuses to carry the order at the time of execution. The army men refuse to fight the battle. 

The obeying of authorities has been an important element of the social structure in our society. In autocratic governments, the authority derives the power by virtue of birth or by position. Democracy results in sharing of power among more people. A discussion on that can be seen here. Will the democratic set-up will dilute the notion of authority more and more or will just bestow the power of authorities in a different way.

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