Have You Ever?

You’re playing at the park when you see your older brother fiddling with a bike that isn’t his. As you get closer, you see that he’s removing the front wheel from the frame. Your brother catches you staring and tells you to help him. You hesitate, saying that neither of you own the bicycle. Your brother rolls his eyes and says, “It’s not that big of a deal – we’re not hurting anyone. Now help me.” Still feeling a bit uneasy, you help your brother remove the bike wheel. Why?

Here’s Why

People are more likely to follow orders if they 1) come from someone they view as an authority, 2) are either distanced physically or emotionally from the victim, or 3) feel like the only option is to obey. Since you trust your brother, the bike owner is nowhere in sight, and your brother dismisses your protests, you help remove the bike wheel even though you know you shouldn’t.

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

The Milgram Obedience Experiments are a series of experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in which a volunteer or “teacher” is asked by an experimenter to administer shocks as part of a “learning experiment.” Their job is to shock the “learner,” a confederate posing as another volunteer, every time they answer a question incorrectly. With each incorrect answer, the shock level increases. As the shocks get more painful, the learner screams out, “Hey, this really hurts!” and “Let me out of here!” Stanley Milgram and other prominent psychologists were doubtful any volunteer would continue after the learner first cries out, but 65% of participants delivered the final shock of 450 volts.

How It Works

Did everyone numbly follow instructions that they thought would kill someone? No. Everyone who flipped the final switch hesitated at some point during the experiment, but the experimenter would prod them along, saying, “It is absolutely essential that you continue” or “You have no other choice; you must go on.” If they expressed concern about the learner, the experimenter would reassure them the shocks could do no lasting harm, even as the learner screamed out in pain. Participants saw the experimenter as a greater authority with more knowledge on the subject. The learner was separated from them by a wall while the experimenter was standing right next to them. The teacher had already agreed to participate in the experiment – with the experimenter’s constant reminders, they felt like they couldn’t stop.

Why Care?

Milgram first came up with his experiments as a direct response to the war crimes that the Nazis committed during World War II. Many claimed, “I was just following orders.” Milgram wanted to see if such claims were true, and to an extent, he found that they are. Ordinary people are capable of doing horrible acts, just because someone in charge tells them to. Authority figures can be very persuasive. If left alone, fewer than 3% of participants exhibited full obedience, yet with the experimenters’ commands, that percentage jumps to 65%. 

While this is disheartening to hear, it’s important to know. Sometimes people in power make unethical decisions, but you don’t have to follow their lead and repeat their mistakes. Even when it seems like you’re trapped, you always have a choice. 

Milgram redid his experiment several times, changing different aspects of it. He found that the biggest influence that lead participants to disobey the experimenter’s commands was seeing other learners refuse to continue. Standing up against immoral acts inspires others to do the same. When a trusted individual and your heart disagree on what to do, follow your conscience. It may be hard, but you’ll be glad you did it.

    Learn More

    1. Burger, Jerry M. “Replicating Milgram: Would People Still Obey Today?” American Psychologist, vol. 64, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–11. hollis.harvard.edu, doi:10.1037/a0010932.
    2. Fenigstein, Allan. “Milgram’s Shock Experiments and the Nazi Perpetrators: A Contrarian Perspective on the Role of Obedience Pressures during the Holocaust.” Theory & Psychology, vol. 25, no. 5, 2015, p. 581.
    3. Griggs, Richard A., and George I. Whitehead. “Coverage of Recent Criticisms of Milgram’s Obedience Experiments in Introductory Social Psychology Textbooks.” Theory & Psychology, vol. 25, no. 5, 2015, pp. 564–580. hollis.harvard.edu, doi:10.1177/0959354315601231.
    4. Miller, Arthur G. The Obedience Experiments: A Case Study of Controversy in Social Science. Praeger, 1986.
    5. Russell, Nestar. Understanding Willing Participants, Volume 1: Milgram’s Obedience Experiments and the Holocaust. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2018.

    Think Further

    1. Provide an example (other than the Holocaust) of people following unethical orders they didn’t agree with because of the obedience principles listed above.
    2. Think of a time when you followed a command that you thought was morally wrong. What most influenced your decision to follow?
    3. Milgram re-did his classic experiment multiple times, changing different details of the study. What are some ways he could change the experiment to have a higher full obedience rate? A lower obedience rate? Explain how such changes would affect the obedience rate using the obedience principles.

    Teacher Resources

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