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Obedience: The Milgram Experiment, Article Review Example

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Article Review

            The question of how far ordinary citizens will go when it comes to obeying authority figures blindly has posed a significant challenge throughout history.  Many people wondered, following World War II, for example, how ordinary Germans set about killing their fellow citizens either directly or indirectly, whether it was out of blind obedience to Hitler’s ideology or whether it was due to a genuine belief that Jews were subhuman and deserved to be exterminated. This scene was also addressed in a recent film, “Compliance,” in which a complete stranger telephoned into a fast food restaurant, and ordered several employees to verbally and sexually abuse one of their coworkers simply based on his anonymous instructions. The Stanley Milgram experiment in 1963 addressed such questions: how willing are ordinary people to inflict pain or even death onto to complete strangers based on the instructions given to them by authority figures? This paper will present a history of the theme of obedience, as well as a review of the Milgram experiment, its methods, results, and a discussion of the lasting significance that this study had on the field of psychology. 

The German holocaust could not have occurred without a large number of people obeying instructions of an authority figure.  It is not the only example of blind obedience in history, however. A well-known precedent regarding the orders of a superior is known as the “Maxwell Case” from as far back as the Napoleonic Wars. French prisoners in a Scottish jail had not turned out he light in their cell window when ordered to do so by a guard, who, under the direct orders of an “Ensign Maxwell”, fired at the light, killing one of the prisoners (Townsend, 2002.) Maxwell was later convicted of murder by the High Court of Justiciary of Scotland. His defense had been that he was acting under orders of his superiors, but this claim was rejected. The court’s decision stated that “every officer has the discretion to disobey order against the known laws of the land” (Townsend, 2002.)

In the United States, a well-known case involved that of Mitchell vs. Harmony, dating from the Mexican More and which involved a civil suit. A U.S. Army officer illegally took a trader’s goods in Mexican-occupied territory; ultimately, he was sued for the price of the goods, but stated that he had been acting under the orders of one of his superiors (Townsend, 2002.) His plea was rejected by the court, which stated that a military officer could never justify illegal acts by blaming his superiors. Another famous American case was The United States v. John Jones, wherein some individuals belonging to the crew of an American businessman were prosecuted during the War of 1812 when they detained and searched a Portuguese vessel at sea, attacking the members of the crew as well as the captain, and absconded with treasures. They were found guilty, and defended themselves by saying that they were only obeying the orders of the captain, but the judge rejected that notion, saying that no military official could order or justify an illegal action.

In his famous experiment, Milgram designed a tool specifically to measure obedience and involving unsuspecting subjects administering shocks to a “victim,” using a shock generator that was marked from 15 to 40 volts. All of the designations were translated into terms that were easily understandable to the participants: ranging from slight shock to danger: severe shock.  The victims were part of the experiment and had been prepared to provide standardize responses.  The unwitting subjects were given instructions to administer the shocks, and told that the purpose of the experiment was to explore the impact of punishment on memory.  During the course of the experiment, the subjects were directed to deliver increasingly stronger levels of shocks to the victims, including reaching the levels that were marked “danger—severe shock.”

The study consisted of 40 male participants, ages 20 through 50, and was conducted at Yale University, a location that lent credibility to the experiment. The person who was allegedly in the position of administering the research was played by a mild-mannered 31 year old teacher whose affect was neutral, his appearance formal and “stern” for the duration of the study.  The victim of the faux shocks was portrayed by a 47 year old accountant who was coached about how to play his role and who also appeared to be likable and mild-mannered.  The subjects were then told about the details of the experiment: that it was not clear what the connection was between punishment and memory, or how much punishment created optimal conditions for learning. The sample drew a diverse group of respondents, including postal clerks, teachers, salesman, and engineers.  There was also a range in educational level, from people who had not finished primary school to others with advanced degrees.  People were paid $4.50 for their participation in the experiment, and they were entitled to the fee regardless of the experiment’s requirements.

The person who was allegedly in the position of administering the research was played by a mild-mannered the one year-old teacher whose affect was neutral, his appearance formal and “stern” for the duration of the study.  The victim of the faux shocks was portrayed by a 47 year old accountant who was coached about how to play his role and who appeared to be likable as well as mild-mannered too.  The subjects were then told about the details of the experiment: that it was not clear what the connection was between punishment and memory, how much punishment created optimal conditions for learning.  The subjects were given the choice of being either the teacher or the learner, taking slips of paper which were rigged so that the subjects were always in the role of teacher, and the research team was always in the position of being the alleged learner.  It was explained to the “teachers” that in order to prevent the shock victims from moving around when they were receiving the shocks, straps were placed around them as if to simulate an electric chair.  An electrode was attached to the wrist of the “learner”, and a cream was administered, supposedly to prevent him or her from becoming blistered from the electricity.  To further increase the credibility of the experiment, “teachers” were told that the shocks may be painful, but that they would not create permanent tissue damage.  To additionally enhance the credibility of the study, the people in the position of teacher were given a mild shock so that they would be able to understand the punishments would be like.

Learners were presented with questions, and given a choice of four answers.  The subject was instructed to deliver a shock each time a wrong answer was given, and to increase the voltage of electricity with each wrong answer.  The study subjects were told to keep repeating questions and shocking the respondents until they got all the answers correct.  When the victims reacted to the “shocks” by either pounding or giving no response afterwards, the experimenter instructed the subjects to continue administering the shocks at higher levels.  Whenever the study subjects indicated reluctance to go on, they were encouraged, first gently than more firmly, to continue; the dependent variable studied was the level at which subjects refused to proceed any further.  This ranged from zero, when subjects refused to administer any shots, to 30, when a  subject was willing to deliver the highest voltage.  The subjects were categorized as either defiant or obedient, and the activity was recorded by tapes, still photographs, and interviews.

The results were consistent with the expectations of the researchers.  A majority of them anticipated that most of the subjects would be unwilling to administer the highest voltage to the “learners,” giving them the most severe shock levels.  This turned out to be the case.  The subjects appeared to believe that the experiment was legitimate, and also that they were administering actual voltage to the learners.  In addition, the study subjects expressed nervousness about delivering shocks, manifested in various ways such as nervous laughter, smiling, and rarely, seizures.  To the surprise of the researchers, when commanded, the vast majority of study subjects went beyond 300 volts, the level where the actors exhibited physical behaviors such as kicking or lack of answering questions.  Five out of 40 people refused to give any shocks at all.  Another four stopped participating in the voltage administration after one try.  Another nine eventually refused to obey the instructions to continue shocking the respondents.  Ultimately, 14 of the original 40 withdrew from the punishing activity despite the authoritative instructions to continue.  Therefore, 26 people obeyed the instructions to administer the most severe shocks to the respondents, despite their high levels of stress and reluctance.

The study’s conclusions included two major points: that despite the fact that most people are raised with a moral value that disapproves of harming people, the majority of them obeyed the commands to do just that, in spite of their obvious discomfort with the activity.  The second striking conclusion was the degree to which the study subjects experienced tension and emotional distress, even while they continued to engage in behavior that they found unacceptable and harmful. Nevertheless, they still obeyed.

This study was an extremely important contribution to the field of psychology, because it illustrated how far people will go in violating their own moral compasses and values in order to comply with a perceived authority figure.  The reasons that this study has been significant in the field of social psychology are that it helps to comprehend that world history has been full of examples of people turning against their peers, and neighbors, and even families when they are under the control of an authoritative figure.  In various forms, this has occurred again and again, frequently in the form of religious cults whereby a charismatic but unhinged leader is able to attract a legion of followers who are willing to desert their basic values, lifestyles, and relationships in order to obey this person.

The Milgram experiment was extremely controlled in a formal way; the people who were participants in the study were chosen specifically because they appeared to be nonthreatening yet authoritative.  It is unclear whether different personalities portrayed by the researchers would have had the exact same responses.  For example, if the people in charge of the research appeared to be outgoing, empathic, or demonstrated a sense of humor, there is uncertainty about whether or not the study subjects would have felt more empowered to resist instructions to administer shocks.  Some authority figures have different leadership styles, which may or may not have allowed or even encouraged autonomy on the part of the subjects.  Since there is really no information about the personality types or personal histories involved in the study, it may not be possible or legitimate to generalize the findings.  For example, perhaps the 26 people who followed the instructions blindly had histories of punitive or authoritative parents in their backgrounds, while the 14 who resisted grew up in situations where they were encouraged to rebel and assert themselves.

An interesting study of a similar nature might involve attempting to understand the qualities of a personality that make someone more likely to adhere to authority figures, and which personality types would be more likely to refuse to go along with instructions that violate their code of ethics.  The study itself, while classic, raises some ethical issues as well: is it ever legitimate to have people harm others, even if the people are not actually administering harm, but they believe that they are doing so? What were the long-term consequences for the people who were subjects in the study?  Even though Milgram designed a sort of reconciliation afterwards, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the study left the subjects unaffected by what they thought they had done.  In order to thoroughly cover the aftermath of the study, he might have conducted follow-up interviews with the participants to see how they had coped with the ramifications of their behaviors over the long-term.

References:

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 371-378.

Townsend, R. (February, 2002). “Superior Orders”: A Legitimate Defense? Retrieved March 1, 2013, from Historians.org: http://www.historians.org/projects/giroundtable/Criminals/Criminals7.htm

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