Imagine some guy zapping the bejesus out of you with an electrode strapped to your wrist. You’re not at the Schick Center getting shock therapy to lose the cancer sticks. You’re not a part of some sadomasochistic cult sitting in a strange basement in nothing but your birthday suit. Imagine further that this guy is electrocuting you whenever you give the wrong answer to his questions. You’re not being asked questions like “Where’s the next attack going to occur?” or “Where’s the bomb?” Instead, he’s asking you to make associations between words. Now, before you imagine yourself tearing off the electrode and lunging for the guy to throttle the life out of him for causing you so much agony, envision yourself in his role. You’re the one punishing some poor sap whenever he doesn’t get the right answer. But there’s a catch: the electric shock is a ruse and you don’t know it. You think that this guy is howling in excruciating pain every time you zap him with ever increasing amounts of voltage, but he’s in fact an actor faking it. Why are you administrating electric shock to this guy? For $4 an hour you agreed to participate as a “teacher” in an experiment on the use of punishment in the learning process and now a researcher is standing by telling you to proceed.
Psychologist Stanley Milgram devised and conducted this experiment at Yale University in the 1960s. It’s not really about the learning process, however. He wanted to know how far people would go in harming another person at the behest of an authority figure. In essence the ruse consisted of three individuals: the experimenter, a learner, and a teacher. The first two were complicit in the game. The “teacher” was unwittingly the subject of the experiment. The experimenter instructed him to read the questions to the “learner,” who was strapped to a chair and hooked up to an electrode in an adjacent room visible to the subject through a glass screen. With each wrong answer, the teacher was to flip one of the thirty switches on the “shock generator.” The shocks ranged from 15 to 450 volts, each with corresponding labels like Slight Shock and Extreme Intensity Shock. The experimenter told the teacher to increase the shock with every wrong answer. Accordingly, the learner—again, an actor—would grimace, howl, be unresponsive, convulse, you name it. Most of the subjects expressed concern along the way, experiencing a great deal of stress at times; nonetheless, the experimenter would tell them dispassionately to continue with the experiment.
So what did these subjects do? Despite their misgivings, the majority of them went all the way to 450 volts. Even Milgram was surprised by this percentage. His experiment also tested degrees of proximity between the teacher and learner as a factor in doling out physical punishment. While the first subjects were rather remote from the guy strapped to the electrode, in a second experiment the teacher could hear the learner’s resistance more clearly. Then, Milgram put the teacher and learner in the same room. Finally, the experiment required the subject to place the hand of the victim on a “shock plate” to receive the shock, thus requiring physical contact. In each successive experiment the number of subjects who zapped the victim with the higher volts became successively less. However, the majority of them still took it to the max, 450 volts. Later Milgram conducted his test on women and found roughly the same results.
So what does all this mean? It means that ordinary people can administer grievous suffering on other human beings when they’re told to do so by an authority figure, in this case a scientific researcher. It helps us explain the involvement of seemingly normal individuals in death squads or concentration camps during the Holocaust, let alone other atrocious events in history. Milgram conceded that his experiment only roughly approximates reality. For instance, the subjects of the experiment felt a bit at ease in complying with a researcher at a university (and Milgram in fact moved the experiment to an office building to take this out of the equation); they probably reasoned that the guy in the white lab coat knows what he’s doing and surely no serious harm would occur. In real life, such comforting thoughts aren’t always present. The perpetrators of genocide or war crimes operate under different conditions. Yet Milgram’s experiment still provides us with an important and sobering insight into the human condition. People will often turn off their own moral sensibility in certain situations and act as an agent of some higher authority.