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Nazi war criminals used the defense of ‘just following orders’. So in 1963, psychology professor Stanley Milgram devised a test to see if ordinary people would harm someone simply when told to by an authority figure.
#1 He advertised for participants. On arrival they drew lots to become a ‘learner’ or a ‘teacher’. The ‘learners’ were all stooges and were put in a room and electrodes attached to their arms. The ‘teachers’ were put in a room with an electric shock machine marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (marked XXX).
#2 The ‘learner’ memorized word pairs and the ‘teacher’ tested him. A man in a lab coat (the authority figure) told them to give an increasing electric shock for each wrong answer.
#3 Each time the ‘learner’ got it wrong the ‘teacher’ shocked them. As the shocks increased in voltage the ‘learner’ would make pretend cries of agony and plead for them to stop.
#4 Many ‘teachers’ were trembling and sweating at hearing the cries of pain. Many said they couldn’t go on and were then told by the authority figure:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires you to continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice but to continue.
#5 Shockingly two-thirds of the 800 ‘teachers’ went on to give a fatal shock of 450 volts.
#6 The conclusion was that a command from an authority figure will overrule decision-making, even if it means killing an innocent person that you had just met. It concluded that this obedience to authority is ingrained in us from the family, school and workplace.
However, today it was announced by the British Journal of Social Psychology that it may not be as bleak as it looked. Milgram only looked at two categories – obedient or disobedient in terms of the final outcome, not how many made attempts to stop. This suggests people can be trained to tap their innate resistance to stand up to illegal, unethical or inappropriate orders.
You can see footage from the original experiment here: