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Should Milgram’s experiments on obedience even have been conducted? Consider the ethics of the experiments, the contribution of Milgram’s findings to our scientific knowledge about social behaviour, and the relevance of the study to contemporary life in Britain today. Obedience is a type of social influence whereby somebody acts in response to a direct order from another person. In the past, obedience to authority has resulted in the mass slaughter of millions of innocent people as seen in World War II, and many other atrocities since then.

This begs the question of what causes people to obey such orders. In a series of studies between 1960 and 1963, Stanley Milgram attempted to explain this aspect of human behaviour. Milgram’s original experiment in 1960 involved 40 male participants who had been recruited through newspaper advertisements. The participants were told the study was an investigation into the effects of punishment on learning and memory, and were paid $4. 50 for volunteering. The study took place in a laboratory in the prestigious Yale University in the USA.

On arrival, the experimenter introduced two ‘participants’ to each other and they drew lots to determine who would be the ‘teacher’ and who would be the ‘learner’. In actual fact, one of the ‘participants’ was a confederate to the experimenter (a 47 year old mild-mannered accountant) and the lots were fixed so that in each case the confederate would take on the role of ‘learner’. The learner’s role was to memorise a list of paired words (e. g. nice-day), the task being to identify which of a possible four terms had originally been paired with the first word of each pair.

The teacher’s role was to administer an electric shock each time the learner made a mistake, and was told to increase the voltage level each time the learner made a mistake. In order to feel the amount of pain caused, the teacher received a mild sample shock. The learner was then strapped into an ‘electric chair’ in the room next door to the teacher. The teacher was placed in front of a ‘shock generator’ consisting of 30 switches, marked with voltages ranging from 0-450 volts in 15-volt increments.

The scale was also labelled from ‘slight shock’ to ‘danger’ or ‘XXX’. At 75 volts the learner began to grunt. At 120 volts the learner shouts that the shocks are painful, and at 150 volts he cries out that he refuses to go on. By 270 volts his protests turn to screams of agony, and he continues insisting to be let out. At 300 to 315 volts he screams his refusal to answer, and finally at 330 volts he falls silent. The teacher was instructed that silence should be considered as a wrong answer and told to administer the punishment.

Whenever the teacher hesitated, the experimenter gave standardised prods to encourage him to continue – ‘please continue’, ‘the experiment requires that you continue’, ‘it is absolutely essential that you continue’, and ‘you have no other choice, you must go on’. In reality, no actual shocks were administered to the learner and his responses were pre-recorded. The results of the experiment were very surprising. Prior to the study, Milgram had described the experiment to 110 psychiatrists, college students and middle-class adults, and asked how far they thought the participants would go.

They predicted that many would disobey by around 135 volts, and that only an extremely small proportion would actually continue to administer shocks beyond 300 volts and to the 450-volt level. However, it was found that all participants went to at least 300 volts, with 65 per cent continuing to the end and giving shocks of 450 volts. From the findings of this original experiment and the systematic variations of it (also conducted by Milgram), we are able to consider the contributions it has made to our knowledge about social behaviour and attempt to answer the question of what caused the participants to obey.

Four main explanations for the behaviour seen in the study have been put forward. The first of these is the presence of legitimate authority. In this case, the experimenter was seen as such, presented in a lab-coat for increased authenticity. It has been suggested that we feel obligated to those in power because we respect their credentials and assume they know what they are doing. In a variation of the experiment, the experimenter left the room and another subject who had been assigned to a clerical role (a confederate) assumed control. In this situation 80 per cent of the teachers refused to comply fully and most protested.

Also, the prestigious reputation of Yale University also had an influence on levels of obedience, findings showing that when the experiment was moved to run-down inner-city office building, obedience levels dropped to 47. 5 per cent. It has been argued that the laboratory situation in which Milgram’s study took place bears little resemblance to real-life situations in which obedience is required. However the results from a study by Hofling et al (1966, as cited in Myers, D, 1996) show that ‘blind obedience’ to an authority figure could readily occur in real life.

The study took place in a hospital situation, and involved 22 nurses. The nurses were asked by an unknown physician, over the telephone, to administer an obvious overdose of a drug – complying with this order would involve breaking several hospital rules. Despite this, it was found that all but one of the nurses obeyed without delay, and when interviewed afterwards all the nurses said that they had been asked to do this type of thing before and that doctors became annoyed if they refused.

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