I realized this would go incredibly long if I just laid it all down at once. So this is part one of my telling you, the ignorant, what The Milgram Experiments in Obedience are and what they (probably) mean.
Okay so let us say you’re a sociologist and you saw World War 2 happen and also you are Jewish. This is getting specific but mostly I just mean imagine if you really wanted to know what in the name of all that is holy would convince people to commit genocide and man is there a good way of making sure that is never ever going to happen again because damn. You have just been tricked into imagining you are Stanley Milgram, circa 1955.
I apologize for that deception. I want you to calm down and take note that all of your ideas about understanding and dealing with the root causes of genocide suck. Stoic acceptance? Don’t be silly. Asking nicely for people to stop committing genocide all the time? Wrong. The answer was to do some intense, then borderline-illegal and now definitely-illegal science. I can’t believe you were even considering those other things.
Milgram couldn’t justify thinking that literally every one of the millions of people involved with the Nazi regime was just mustache-twirling evil. I mean, was the person responsible for notarizing expense reports really doing it out of pure accounting-related hatred for the lesser races? It did not seem like a sensible answer. So he needed to figure out what it was that actually led to this nationwide craze for murder.
His basic hypothesis was simple. People were willing to do terrible things in the name of awful causes so long as it meant being obedient to authority. His assumption was that people would probably do something moderately bad if they had a little light pressure from an authority figure, and then in something like Nazi Germany, where the pressure was enormous, they’d do something really bad. He was wrong.
With a little light pressure from an authority figure, people will straight murder.
Allow me to clarify. With a minimal amount of pressure from a moderately respected authority, around 60% of a random sample of people killed a man just because they were told to. The rest merely maimed him.
Okay I’ll pull back a bit. They didn’t actually murder a guy. Milgram, badass as he was, probably wouldn’t have been able to get funding for research involving just telling people to kill and seeing if they did. What he did was set up a clever experiment where it looked like you were an accomplice to murder but actually you just had a stain on your soul that would need to examine the rest of your days, weeping in the quiet watches of the night.
What he did was he sent out fliers asking for people to come participate in an experiment on “learning styles”. When a person arrived, he would tell them to wait outside for a bit. When they were outside the lab, they’d meet the “other applicant”, a nice older man who was in actuality an actor hired to play the “victim”. Milgram would tell them that one of them would be the “teacher” and one of them would be the “learner”, and put their names in a hat to be randomly chosen. Of course, the real applicant always got the “teacher” position (his name was on both pieces of paper), and off they went to the lab to set themselves up. The learner was in one room, the teacher was in another, and there was no direct interaction between them.
Milgram presented the experiment as being an exercise where the learner would learn a list of word pairs. Every time he got one wrong, the teacher was supposed to shock him, and every time the shock was supposed to increase one 15-volt step, from 15 volts all the way to 450 (which was labeled very clearly DANGER-SEVERE SHOCK). The experiment was presided over by the “experimenter”, a guy in a lab coat with a clip-board who just stood and watched.
Simple enough, and not exactly a situation that anyone should run screaming from. All you do is shock the guy a bit, and then when it gets dangerous you bow out. Except when you try bow out the experimenter says to you “the experiment requires you to continue”. That’s all. Does it sound like something that would make you reconsider fatally electrocuting someone? To most people, no it does not. Surveys conducted by Milgram asking Psychiatrists, college students, and a random sample of middle-class adults showed that only 4 of the entire group was under the impression they would go as high as 300 volts. A full one hundred percent predicted disobedience to the experimenter. Which is totally what you would have said if I didn’t keep telling you people are all closet murderers.
What actually occurs across all sample groups in the initial experiment (men, women, students, etc) is that 60% go all the way to 450 volts and beyond, and 40% quit after around 300 volts, very far past the pain threshold. Milgram thought this disconnect between what people thought they would do and what they actually did was interesting. Milgram decided that this was interesting enough to look at again. Like maybe 20 times over the course of the next few years, just to be sure he knew what was happening. He was a really curious guy.