Watch Footage from the Psychology Experiment That Shocked the World: Milgram’s Obedience Study (1961)

For decades fol­low­ing World War II,  the world was left won­der­ing how the atroc­i­ties of the Holo­caust could have been per­pe­trat­ed in the midst of—and, most hor­rif­i­cal­ly, by—a mod­ern and civ­i­lized soci­ety. How did peo­ple come to engage in a will­ing and sys­tem­at­ic exter­mi­na­tion of their neigh­bors? Psy­chol­o­gists, whose field had grown into a grudg­ing­ly respect­ed sci­ence by the mid­point of the 20th cen­tu­ry, were eager to tack­le the ques­tion.

In 1961, Yale University’s Stan­ley Mil­gram began a series of infa­mous obe­di­ence exper­i­ments. While Adolf Eichmann’s tri­al was under­way in Jerusalem (result­ing in Han­nah Arendt’s five-piece reportage, which became one of The New York­er magazine’s most dra­mat­ic and con­tro­ver­sial arti­cle series), Mil­gram began to sus­pect that human nature was more straight­for­ward than ear­li­er the­o­rists had imag­ined; he won­dered, as he lat­er wrote, “Could it be that Eich­mann and his mil­lion accom­plices in the Holo­caust were just fol­low­ing orders? Could we call them all accom­plices?”

In the most famous his exper­i­ments, Mil­gram osten­si­bly recruit­ed par­tic­i­pants to take part in a study assess­ing the effects of pain on learn­ing. In real­i­ty, he want­ed to see how far he could push the aver­age Amer­i­can to admin­is­ter painful elec­tric shocks to a fel­low human being.

When par­tic­i­pants arrived at his lab, Milgram’s assis­tant would ask them, as well as a sec­ond man, to draw slips of paper to receive their roles for the exper­i­ment. In fact, the sec­ond man was a con­fed­er­ate; the par­tic­i­pant would always draw the role of “teacher,” and the sec­ond man would invari­ably be made the “learn­er.”

The par­tic­i­pants received instruc­tions to teach pairs of words to the con­fed­er­ate. After they had read the list of words once, the teach­ers were to test the learner’s recall by read­ing one word, and ask­ing the learn­er to name one of the four words asso­ci­at­ed with it. The exper­i­menter told the par­tic­i­pants to pun­ish any learn­er mis­takes by push­ing a but­ton and admin­is­ter­ing an elec­tric shock; while they could not see the learn­er, par­tic­i­pants could hear his screams. The con­fed­er­ate, of course, remained unharmed, and mere­ly act­ed out in pain, with each mis­take cost­ing him an addi­tion­al 15 volts of pun­ish­ment. In case par­tic­i­pants fal­tered in their sci­en­tif­ic resolve, the exper­i­menter was near­by to urge them, using four author­i­ta­tive 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.

In a jar­ring set of find­ings, Mil­gram found that 26 of the 40 par­tic­i­pants obeyed instruc­tions, admin­is­ter­ing shocks all the way from “Slight Shock,” to “Dan­ger: Severe Shock.” The final two omi­nous switch­es were sim­ply marked “XXX.” Even when the learn­ers would pound on the walls in agony after seem­ing­ly receiv­ing 300 volts, par­tic­i­pants per­sist­ed. Even­tu­al­ly, the learn­er sim­ply stopped respond­ing.

Although they fol­lowed instruc­tions, par­tic­i­pants repeat­ed­ly expressed their desire to stop the exper­i­ment, and showed clear signs of extreme dis­com­fort:

“I observed a mature and ini­tial­ly poised busi­ness­man enter the lab­o­ra­to­ry smil­ing and con­fi­dent. With­in 20 min­utes he was reduced to a twitch­ing, stut­ter­ing wreck, who was rapid­ly approach­ing a point of ner­vous col­lapse… At one point he pushed his fist into his fore­head and mut­tered: “Oh God, let’s stop it.” And yet he con­tin­ued to respond to every word of the exper­i­menter, and obeyed to the end.” 

Milgram’s study set off a pow­der keg whose impact remains felt to this day. Eth­i­cal­ly, many object­ed to the decep­tion and the lack of ade­quate par­tic­i­pant debrief­ing. Oth­ers claimed that Mil­gram overem­pha­sized human nature’s propen­si­ty for blind obe­di­ence, with the exper­i­menter often urg­ing par­tic­i­pants to con­tin­ue many more times than the four stock phras­es allowed.

In the clip above, you can watch orig­i­nal footage from Milgram’s  exper­i­ment, fright­en­ing in its insid­i­ous sim­plic­i­ty. (See a full doc­u­men­tary on the study below.) The man admin­is­ter­ing the shock grows increas­ing­ly uncom­fort­able with his part in the pro­ceed­ings, and almost walks out, ask­ing “Who’s going to take the respon­si­bil­i­ty for any­thing that hap­pens to that gen­tle­man?” When the exper­i­menter replies, “I’m respon­si­ble,” the man, absolv­ing him­self, con­tin­ues. As the per­son receiv­ing the shocks grows increas­ing­ly pan­icked, com­plain­ing about his heart and ask­ing to be let out, the par­tic­i­pant makes his objec­tions known but appears par­a­lyzed, sheep­ish­ly turn­ing to the exper­i­menter, unable to leave.

Although Milgram’s work has drawn crit­ics, his results endure. While chang­ing the experiment’s pro­ce­dure may alter com­pli­ance (e.g., hav­ing the exper­i­menter speak to par­tic­i­pants over the phone rather than remain in the same room through­out the exper­i­ment decreased obe­di­ence rates), repli­ca­tions have tend­ed to con­firm Milgram’s ini­tial find­ings. Whether one is urged once or a dozen times, peo­ple tend to take on the yoke of author­i­ty as absolute, relin­quish­ing their per­son­al agency in the pain they impart. Human nature, it seems, has no Manichean leanings—merely a pli­ant bent.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in Novem­ber 2013.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Lit­tle Albert Exper­i­ment: The Per­verse 1920 Study That Made a Baby Afraid of San­ta Claus & Bun­nies

The Pow­er of Con­for­mi­ty: 1962 Episode of Can­did Cam­era Reveals the Strange Psy­chol­o­gy of Rid­ing Ele­va­tors

Her­mann Rorschach’s Orig­i­nal Rorschach Test: What Do You See? (1921)

Carl Gus­tav Jung Explains His Ground­break­ing The­o­ries About Psy­chol­o­gy in Rare Inter­view (1957)

Free Online Cours­es Psy­chol­o­gy

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based sci­ence and cul­ture writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.