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Milgram’s Shocking Experiments

June 15, 2009

Like many people who study psychology in college, I learned about Stanley Milgram’s experiments with obedience to authority. He gave volunteers “buzzers” and told them that they should shock unseen subjects on the other side of a barrier when they gave incorrect answers to questions. The shocks were elevated each time the subject got an answer wrong, and the volunteers could see a display showing when the shocks were causing serious, even fatal, consequences. And yet, the volunteers generally continued to administer the shocks regardless of the consequences. In reality, no shocks were actually administered to the subjects. The findings–that when properly prompted by authority figures, people will follow orders and do great harm to innocent others–were revolutionary and led to substantial insights into events like the Nuremburg trials where Nazi officers who committed great atrocities claimed they were “just following orders”. (Of course, this isn’t meant to justify the behavior of criminal officers or anyone else…only to explain that human psychology may allow us to engage in activities of which we would never believe ourselves capable.) NPR has an insightful and detailed discussion of the Milgram experiments here in the wake of a new book on the subject.

In the early ’60s psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted his “obedience” experiments, showing that most people will do what an authority figure tells them to do. Psychology professor Thomas Blass details Milgram’s life and work in his book The Man Who Shocked the World.

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