What did Milgram's experiment show

Stanley Milgram: Obedience to Authority

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The social psychologist Stanley Milgram studied the interrelationships between individuals and groups and group dynamics. Photo: archive
American psychologist Stanley Milgram was born 75 years ago.

The American psychologist Stanley Milgram demonstrated in his now famous experiment from 1962 that three quarters of the average population can be induced to abuse a person unknown to them by a pseudoscientific authority. He did this "expressly with the intention" to better understand the complex problem of obedience, and not to judge it from a higher vantage point. His results aroused incredulous amazement and dismay in the world, but also criticism and sometimes bitter protests.

Stanley Milgram was born in New York on August 15, 1933. He graduated from Queen’s College in the mid-1950s and did his doctorate under Gordon Allport at Harvard University. According to Allport, social psychology primarily explores how individuals' thoughts, feelings, and behavior are influenced by the presence of others. In addition, she studies the interrelationships between individuals and groups as well as the play of forces within groups, the "group dynamics". This is where the social psychologist Milgram starts with his work.

When does the test subject refuse to obey?
To easily examine obedience, he creates a situation where one person commands another to do something and notes when the command is and when the command is not obeyed. In order to examine the strength of obedience and the conditions under which this strength varies, he makes a reference to a strong opposing force that acts in the direction of disobedience: the moral imperative that you be a helpless person who is neither harmful nor threatening to yourself not supposed to cause pain. The main question of the experiment is how long the test subject obeys the instructions of the experimenter before refusing further obedience.

Milgram recruited his test subjects from the 300,000-inhabitant community of New Haven. On the day of the experiment, two people enter an elegant psychology laboratory at Yale University. One is designated by the experimenter as a "teacher", the other as a "student". Only the teacher is an uninitiated subject. The experimenter is played by a biology teacher and the pupil is played by an accountant who has been trained for this role. The experimenter explains to both that the investigation is into the effect of punishment on learning. The student is now tied to a chair in an adjoining room. An electrode and an electrode ointment are attached to his wrist “to avoid blisters and burns”. The test subject sits in front of a shock generator as a teacher and is instructed to carry out a learning test with the student. Whenever the student gives a wrong answer, ask the subject to give him an electric shock, starting at 15 volts. With every further wrong answer it should increase the shock strength by 15 volts up to a strength of 450 volts. There are labels under the 30 switches on the shock generator that range from “light shock” to “threatening shock”. Of course, the “student” doesn't get any real shock. But in order to increase the credibility, the investigator explains when asked that the shocks could be extremely painful, but would not result in permanent tissue damage.

The experimenter responds to doubts or questions from the test subject during the experiment with a series of standardized comments: “Please, continue! The experiment requires you to keep going! You absolutely have to continue! ”In a preliminary examination without any feedback from the student, almost every test person administered the required shocks up to the end of the scale. Further variants of the experiment assign the student's sounds and words to a specific voltage level. This ranges from a slight growl at 75 volts to moaning to loud protests and excruciating roars. From 150 volts upwards, the student persistently insists on being released from the experiment immediately. At 300 volts, he shouts desperately that he won't give any more answers. In addition, the closeness of the student to the teacher is varied (students in the next room, verbal feedback through a wall, closeness to the room, closeness to contact).

Milgram's results differ significantly from what hundreds of previously interviewed people predict. They expect that practically all test subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter, most of them at the latest when the student asked to stop the experiment. In fact, in the first variant, 26 out of 40 test persons (65 percent) obeyed the instructions of the leader until the end. Almost no one refuses to give shocks on principle. The willingness to obey and the maximum shock given on average decrease with increasing proximity to the victim. But in experiment four (proximity), at least 30 percent of the test subjects are obedient to the end, and the average applied voltage is 255 volts. The move to a less elegant laboratory, the mention of a heart defect on the part of the “student” and the exchange of the experimenter and the student do not lead to more refusal to obey. An oral contract between the experimenter and the student at the beginning of the experiment, which guarantees the student that he only has to participate for as long as he wants, only causes a slight increase in the disobedience. In most cases, there is a clear difference between the shock height that the subject gives the student and the height that he or she is willing to accept as a test shock.

Milgram observes a drastic decrease in obedience when the experimenter is not in the laboratory and gives his orders over the phone. Here 77.5 percent of the test subjects refuse to obey. In doing so, several of them give lower shocks than they are commanded, but without risking an open breach of authority. Peer pressure affects the refusal rate: If the test subject works with two peers (in reality the test director's helpers) and they refuse to continue the experiment, 90 percent refuse to obey. If, on the other hand, only a peer administered the shocks instead of the test subject, the refusal rate is less than ten percent. Women are similarly obedient to men, but they are significantly more tense than obedient men. If the test subjects are free to choose the shock level, most only administer the lowest level - for Milgram a decisive indication that the test subjects abuse their victims not because they are particularly aggressive, but because their behavior is more specific due to the situation Way changed.

Why is obedience such a strong disposition in man? According to Milgram, hierarchically organized societies have a clear survival advantage within evolution. Such a social organization presupposes a certain willingness to obey. From an evolutionary point of view, it is crucial that a society produces individuals who can function in hierarchies. Milgram compares the gift of obedience with the gift of speech and postulates similarly specific brain structures for them. These allow the individual to act in two ways within a social structure: a "self-determined (autonomous) mode" to satisfy his own needs and a "system-bound mode" when he is integrated into a larger organizational structure. In this “agent state”, the individual no longer takes responsibility for his or her actions, but sees himself as an instrument for carrying out the wishes of others. The behavior of an individual therefore depends crucially on which of the two states they are in. In the agent state, a normally polite and friendly person acts brutally against another because his conscience decreases significantly when entering a hierarchical structure.

Most of them rate the experiment positively
A discussion takes place with all test subjects after the end of the experiment. Each of them can “reconcile” with the “victim”. Obedient test subjects are assured that their behavior was completely normal and that other participants showed the same feelings of conflict and tension as they did. According to Milgram, most of the participants rate the experiment positively. Three quarters say they have learned something important through their participation.

In 1970 David Mantell repeated Milgram's experiment in Munich. The obedience rate is higher here than with Milgram, but the difference is not statistically significant. For Mantell, the results show that in a hierarchical structure the "most banal and superficial justification is sufficient to produce destructive behavior".

In her report on the trial against Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt takes the view that Eichmann was much more of an unimaginative bureaucrat than a sadistic monster ("Eichmann in Jerusalem", 1963). Milgram concludes that "Arendt's concept of the 'banality of evil' is closer to the truth than one dares imagine."

The experiment found both supporters and sharp critics among psychologists. Concern about the well-being of the test subjects is also expressed. Surely they have to go on living with what they have learned about themselves.
Christof Goddemeier
Stanley Milgram: Obedience to Authority

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