Obedience to Authority

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Imagine yourself taking part, along with another subject, in a study of memory and learning. The session begins with explanations of the study's goals and your tasks. Your respective roles- teacher and learner-are determined by drawing lots. You land the teaching position. During the experiment, the learner is strapped into an "electric chair" from which he cannot escape, with electrodes attached to his wrist. His task is memorizing word associations. Your task involves teaching him these associations and giving him electric shocks of increasing severity when he fails to remember them. Throughout the experiment you are seated in front of an impressive shock generator, with 30 switches which go up in intensity from 15 to 450 volts. The shock level these switches produce is marked in words on the shock generator, beginning with "slight shock," going through "moderate," "strong," "intense," "extremely intense," all the way to a point beyond the reading, "danger: severe shock."

As the session unfolds, the learner keeps making irritating mistakes. If you ask, the experimenter demands that you go on raising the shock level, up to the very highest. At 150 volts (the tenth switch), the learner demands to be released. The experimenter, if you ask, tells you that the session must go on. If you continue beyond this level, the learner's protests grow increasingly vehement and emotional. At 285 volts the protests "can only be described as an agonized scream." At 300 volts, the learner tells you that he will no longer take part in the session, nor provide answers to the memory test. The experimenter tells you to continue and to regard silence as the wrong answer. If you go on, the learner keeps screaming violently up to 330 volts. Beyond that point he is completely silent. For all you know, he might be dead. Nevertheless, the experimenter urges you to go on. This, more or less, is the protocol of Stanley Milgram's celebrated study of obedience to authority. The teacher is the subject, while the learner is a skilled actor who actually receives no shock. Two out of every three subjects went all the way to 450 volts. They did so even though they were under the impression that they missed being in the other person's shoes merely by chance. They went to the very end despite the warning signs on the shock generator and despite the pleas and anguish of a fellow human being.

With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under to the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority . . . into performing harsh acts.78

Most subjects did not relish the suffering they inflicted on fellow humans. They gave the learner the weakest shock possible when the choice was left to them. They showed no signs of malice or spite. They were transparently ill at ease during the experiment; often trembling or sweating excessively. They protested and continued only after the experimenter demanded that they go on. Their conduct is traceable to obedience, conceptual conservatism, and conformity, not to sadism.79