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Shock of All Shocks: The Milgram Experiment Got it Wrong

Updated on August 30, 2014
Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View was published in 1974 and explanation of the author's famous series of experiments.
Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View was published in 1974 and explanation of the author's famous series of experiments.

Some topics just seem to follow you everywhere you go. I'm pretty sure I smirked when I skimmed the syllabus lo those years ago for ENG 10-I forget. The Perils of Obedience. Stanley Milgram rears his head once more. His famous experiment in which he attempted to measure a subject’s level of absolute obedience by placing him or her in a situation where he or she is ordered by an authority figure to harm a human being is one that not only crops up in Psychology 101, but has made such a huge impact on our collective conscious that the 1963 experiment is still a very potent source of discussion today. I considered flouting authority by not reading it for the sheer irony of it all. After all, it wasn't as though I was unfamiliar with the material. I swear this thing has been referenced in everything from Law & Order to a Dar Williams song.

I resisted the temptation to slough it off. After all, irony is a lovely incentive in and of itself, but a good grade is a better one. I was able to obey because the task did not require me to deviate from any internal moral code and because not doing it would lead to unpleasant consequences (and, of course, because I love reading dreary psychological articles). The subjects of the Milgram experiment cannot say the same. They not only obeyed orders to harm another human being, thus violating their own consciences, but obeyed orders from a figure who could do nothing to punish them or reward them for their disobedience or obedience. This, of course, has startling implications. If all humans are truly that pliable and irresponsible then the greatest acts of evil in the world suddenly make a lot of sense.

The problem with this experiment though, is that you really cannot apply it to all of humanity. Oh, Milgram did his tests on college kids and so-called average people in various countries, but there is a very real flaw in applying this assessment to all of humanity; he really only tested one specific group of people: volunteers. I suppose it’s hard to fault him as a psychologist for that. It's not like I expect him to drag people from their homes and force them to participate in his experiment. Goodness knows this little demonstration is already full to bursting with ethics violations without adding kidnapping into the mix.

But the thing is: obedience is about trust; and volunteering for something already implies a certain amount of trust on the part of the subject. There are certain people in this world that will not, under any circumstances, volunteer for anything. If someone is looking for volunteers to take a free trip to Aruba there are always going to people who won’t go near that. It is not (necessarily) because these people are disagreeable jerks, but because they smell a catch. These are the people who, should you offer them a cookie, will narrow their eyes at you and ask you if you dropped it. God bless paranoia. These anti-volunteers wouldn’t sign up for an experiment of this sort and even if they found themselves in such a situation they certainly wouldn’t trust some nameless authority figure to take responsibility, fancy white doctor’s coat or no. Therefore, it is a hasty generalization to say that Milgram’s findings apply to everyone.

But these volunteers already had to trust that the scientists knew their own business. Few enjoyed what they were doing. Many responded to the extreme stress of hurting another individual with the sweats, the shakes, and other physical signs of distress. Why would they put up with this discomfort when their authority could pose no harm to them? These trusting individuals believed that the PhD’s behind this experiment knew what they were doing and that their discomfort had to be overcome, as subject Morris Braverman said, “in the interest of science." As I’ve already said, there are volunteers and anti-volunteers in this world. There are also people who implicitly trust doctors and those who just as vehemently distrust them. I’ll let you decide for yourself which category those who volunteered for a psychological experiment belong in.

The advertisement sent out to attract volunteers for the experiment.
The advertisement sent out to attract volunteers for the experiment. | Source

The volunteer elevated in his or her mind the relatively powerless authority figure to a towering position because they possessed knowledge concerning the experiment that its volunteers could not. After all, this experiment was meant to test the “average man,” not the psychologically astute. Anyone with a background in the principles of operant condition and learning (which is what the subjects were told the experiment would be about) could spot some very nasty cracks in the experiment’s supposed premise. The largest question would be: why on earth would they choose, for a subject who must receive shocks, a person with a heart condition? And why, indeed, would the position of the teacher in this experiment be a volunteer? Couldn’t the experimenter take this position? It’s not as though that would’ve tainted the experiment. In fact, bringing in an outsider whose behavior was undefined definitely would taint the experiment.

The unsavvy subjects, for the most part, did not ask these questions and therefore had to trust that the big boys running the operation would take care of all safety measures and such. One self-assured medical technician did question authority though. Perhaps Gretchen Brandt’s medical background gave her enough clout to trump the baseless authority of the experimenter when she said, “Well, I’m sorry, I think when shocks continue like this, they are dangerous. You ask him if he wants to get out. It’s his free will."

Ah, free-will. That’s another thing that gave the experimenter implied power. Of course, the volunteer knows that they are there of their own free will and can leave any time they like, right? Well, what about the “learner,” the man who is really an actor faking getting shocked? For all the subject knows, the learner is a volunteer just like them. Yet, when the “learner” screams, “Let me out of here! You can’t hold me here! Get me out. Get-me-out-of-here!” no one comes to his aid. And thus a red flag flashes in the volunteer’s brain, unbidden, not fully understood, but conjuring fear none the less—fear of being trapped, of being the next one to get shocked. So the volunteer continues with the shocks because it seems like the only way that he or she can escape.


Milgram wanted to see what would happen if a person was forced to choose between obeying an authority by causing harm to another person or sticking to their principles and disobeying. He wanted to understand how supposedly everyday people could break with their own personal responsibilities and commit violence in the name of others. But as Edward E. Jones, editor of the Journal of Personality indicated in his rejection of Milgram’s paper: “we are led to no conclusions about obedience” (378). A true experiment requires controls, variables, a definite hypothesis and the criteria needed to prove the hypothesis. Milgram’s “experiment” was the equivalent of tossing a bunch of chemicals into a beaker and sitting back to see what happens.

Moreover, Milgram’s demonstration has done very little in the way of benefiting mankind. It exposes an ugly sore and merely pokes at it, making no effort whatsoever to solve the problem it claims exists. For that Milgram put his volunteers through incredible stress and attempted to justify it. Milgram bowed to the unimpeachable authority that governed his own life and the lives of many others, and it goes something like: “in the name of science!” Milgram’s indifferent claims that “the discomfort caused the victim is momentary, while the scientific gains resulting from the experiment are enduring” hardly seem valid when you consider that many of the subjects, even if only for a few minutes, believed that they had killed a fellow human being. That’s a little bit more than a psychological boo-boo. Milgram’s callous assumption that it was okay to put people through that for “the greater good” is flat-out wrong. As psychologist Diana Baumrind notes, Milgram’s experiment could’ve “easily effect[ed] an alteration in the subject’s self-image or ability to trust adult authorities in the future” (374).

The really sad thing about all of this is that Milgram never fully understood that what he created was essentially a torture chamber. Sure, it had no iron maidens or thumbscrews, sure, no one was physically hurt, but it tortured the volunteers who came through it for every excruciating minute that they felt they had no choice to but cross a line they had drawn in their head. Something like this is enough to make anyone want to join the suspicious jerk brigade and not put their trust in anyone. A more worthwhile use of Milgram’s time might have been in figuring out how to create more responsible authority figures and a more critical, free-thinking workforce that understands that the chain-of-command does not excuse their own actions. Instead we are left with a dark chapter that insights fear and debasement, but does nothing else.


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    • Todd Enrico profile image

      Todd Enrico 3 years ago

      Oh, I've seen this parodied in movies. I never knew what it was actually sourced from.

      What a scarring mindfuck! It kind of figures it happened in the 60s. Have heard some horror stories of experiments and studies from the days of yore. Further back you go, the less scruples were exercised, it seems.

      "I considered flouting authority by not reading it for the sheer irony of it all."

      ^Made me LOL.