get me out of here! I refuse to go on!" At 180 volts the victim cries, "I
can't stand the pain." Later, there are agonized screams after every
shock and he pounds on the wall pleading with you...and finally at 330
volts the subject falls silent. When the shocker wants to stop the
psychologist simply says, "Please continue" or "You must go on." What
do most people do?
Amazingly, 65% of the subjects went all the way to 450 volts! In
fact, every one of the 40 subjects administered at least 300 volts!
Milgram wrote, "Many subjects will obey the experimenter no matter
how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked...It is the
extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the
command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of this
study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation." The
subjects administering the shock were not sadistic monsters nor very
angry nor prejudiced against the learner nor indifferent (they appeared
to be very stressed).
So, why or how do we humans do such things? Milgram says the
subjects (1) became absorbed in pleasing the authority and doing their
assignment just right, (2) denied their responsibility, "the
experimenter was a Ph. D." or just like Lt. Calley or Adolf Eichmann,
many of the subjects said, "I wouldn't have done it by myself, I was
just doing what I was told," (3) started to believe that the experiment
was vitally important and that the pursuit of truth is a "noble cause"
(even though someone has to suffer), (4) blamed the victim, "he was
so stupid and stubborn he deserved to get shocked," and, most
importantly, (5) just couldn't bring themselves to act on their values
and defy authority.
This deference to authority is a serious problem, not just in terms
of kowtowing to government officials, but also to "experts," doctors,
bosses, owners, authors, and many others who are eager to tell you
what to do.
Socially instilled obedience
Milgram's reasons sound mostly like excuses for our immoral
attempts to curry favor with an important person. Considering the
great stress the subjects experienced and the fact that they were only
paid $4.00 for one hour of work for an experimenter they would never
see again, there must have been some other very powerful needs to
please the psychologist. What, then, are the real reasons we are so
ineffective and intimidated by authority? I suspect it is due to years of
indoctrination (internalization) by the people and institutions most
dear to us--parents, schools, religion, government, etc. Most of the
time conformity and obedience are helpful and morally good. The
same trait, unquestioning obedience, that produces the good child at
home, the good church member, and the good student at school may
also have produced the calloused and cruel abuse in the Milgram
study, in Nazi Germany, in the Vietnamese war, etc. We must learn to
be "good" and to think for ourselves.