Ever hear of the Milgram Experiment?
It was a study conducted in the 1960s at Yale University by psychologist Stanley Milgram. The purpose was to see how far people would go in obeying an authority figure, and it’s results were frightening.
Participants were selected via an ad that was put out in a newspaper looking for volunteers to be part of a study that they were told involved learning. They were all men between the ages of 20 and 50 whose jobs ranged from unskilled labor to professional. They did not realize the real purpose of the experiment was to see how obedient they would be to an authority figure.
The set up was as follows. There was an experimenter who would wear a white lab coat and two other individuals. One of these was the volunteer and the other actually working for Stanley Milgram but was pretending to be a volunteer. These two individuals drew straws to decide who would be the teacher and who would be the learner (this was rigged so that the volunteer would always be the teacher). The volunteer was told that the learner had been given word pairs to remember. As the teacher, he would then be expected to say a word to which the learner was supposed to choose the correct match out of four choices. Furthermore, every time the learner made a mistake, the volunteer was to administer an electric shock and that every time the learner made a mistake, the shock would increase by 15 volts. There were two rooms that were connected via microphone. In one was the experimenter and the volunteer (the teacher) while in the other room was the learner. The experimenter was sitting at a desk while wearing his white lab coat, and the volunteer was at another desk that held the device which he believed would deliver the shocks to the learner. The first switch said 15 volts, and each of the following switches increased by 15 so that the last switch said 450 volts. The volunteer had been told that each switch would send a shock of electricity to the learner whom the volunteer believed was sitting in a chair with electrodes attached. In reality, the learner had no such electrodes.
Once a session started, the learner purposely made lots of mistakes and had a prearranged script that he would use as the voltage increased. If the volunteer questioned the experimenter about what he was doing, the experimenter would prod him to continue up to 4 times.
Prod 1: Please continue.
Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.
At 75 volts, the learner would start the scream in pain. From 150 to 330 volts, the learner would protest with increasing intensity and complain of his heart bothering him. At 330 volts, the learner would refuse to go on, and after 330, he would go silent.
The results were truly frightening. All the volunteers continued up to 300 volts, and 65% of them went all the way to 450 volts. Think about that. After the learner went silent, the volunteers would have no idea whether the learner was unconscious or possibly even dead, yet 65% of the participants continued asking questions and inflicting shocks up until the maximum 450 because the authority figure in the form of the experimenter told them to.
Combining the strong tendency many people have to follow authority figures with devotion that has gone too far frequently leads people to go along with and contribute to distortions, misinformation, and wrongs to a dangerous degree. Authoritarian leaders have relied on this throughout history, often adding fear into the mix as well.
In the United States today, Donald Trump is an example of someone using these types of tactics in his quest to hold as much power as he can get away with. Many people have shown a willingness to a severe degree to follow his authority, even when he is outrageously in the wrong. The evidence that Trump lost the 2020 election is beyond overwhelming. He lost fair and square. Yet millions of Americans and numerous Republican politicians continue to go along with and even spread Trump’s lies about the outcome. A number of individuals who were in the mob that stormed the United States Capitol Building on January 6th, 2021 have openly said they did so because they believed Donald Trump wanted them to. While Trump doesn’t use fear to the severe degree that people like Joseph Stalin did, he does use it in ways such as trying to make his followers afraid of immigrants and of those who disagree with him politically. A number of Republican politicians continue going along with him because they fear Trump will turn on them and get his followers to vote them out of office.
It’s scary to see these tendencies going on in the 21st century, but unfortunately they are. People need to open their minds and think for themselves. They should get information from a variety of different, independent, reputable sources and not just from those that tell them what they want to hear. People should strive to learn about what a leader is really trying to do so that they can make informed decisions about whether they agree with that political leader or not.
The Milgram Experiment Has Ramifications Today