Human Behavior Experiments Obedience to Authority Part 2

About the famous human behavior experiment by Dr. Milgram of Yale University on obedience to authority which combined electric shock therapy, memory retention, and torture.


In variations of the experiment, Milgram found that the closer the victim was to the teacher, physically, the greater was the number of disobedient teachers. When administration of the shock involved actually pushing the pupil's hand down on the shock plate, only 30% of the teachers obeyed (still an astounding figure). Also, most teachers would "cheat" when given a chance, such as when the experimenter left the room, by giving the minimum shock to the actor. This fact seemed to indicate that teachers in the tests were not inherently vicious, merely obedient. Further, in a variation in which the experimenter received the shocks, not a single subject proceeded after the experimenter's initial protests and requests that the experiment be terminated, despite the fact that he had agreed to see it through to the end. Clearly it was the authority figure rather than any sense of scientific requirement that was being obeyed.

The implications of Milgram's work are frightening. Few people are able to stand up for what they know is right even when challenged by a self-appointed authority with no ability to enforce his instructions. Few people weigh the words of another person just like themselves as heavily as those of a person they believe to be somehow "above" them. Most individuals ignore the dictates of their own conscience when pressured by a "superior's" expectation of a given behavior or response.

Milgram notes that most of the obedient subjects displayed a high degree of tension characterized by flushing, sweating, increased heartbeat, and other signs of physiological arousal. Those who were quickest to refuse to continue administering shocks remained the most placid. These individuals were "centered" like those given accurate explanations of the side effects of epinephrine in Schachter's work. They experienced little tension and their bodies reflected their emotional calm. Why were these individuals so centered when many others experienced such painful conflict? Milgram attributes obedience to the hierarchical structure in the blood of the human race, to the tendency to shift responsibility for an action from the person who performs it to the highest member of a hierarchy who is involved in it, and to social influences that encourage one to conform. He doesn't explain why 35% of the subjects were able to overcome all these factors and say No.

Few people would correctly predict the results of this experiment. Even fewer would predict that they would find themselves in the obedient majority, yet it has been repeated many times with the same results each time. Each person must ponder these results, and must watch out for situations in which one evades personal responsibility for one's actions. Many of Milgram's obedient subjects, like many Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg war crime trials or the participants in the My Lai massacre, claimed to be innocent, saying "I was only following my orders." The answer to the question of where each person would stand in a conflict between authority and conscience is present, unnoticed and tragic, in our normal behavior, in everyday life.

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