The Milgram Experiment: How Responsible Are We for Our Actions?

November 8, 2011

Political Theory

During lecture last Thursday we discussed several interesting issues relating to the dirty hands issue and the concept of individuals taking moral and legal responsibility for their actions (i.e. soldiers taking orders in the military). Several thought provoking issues were raised concerning the status of crimes committed in war under the military chain of command, and we briefly discussed if the “I was just doing my job” or “I was just following orders” were valid reasons to justify soldiers’ actions or crimes during war. While discussing these issues, I remembered a social experiment that I’ve heard about that directly addressed these topics. Stanley Milgram, a psychology professor at Yale, conducted a controversial experiment in 1961 that exposed some extremely disturbing aspects of human nature about how each we respond to authority.

In this post I would like to further explore this specific issue of obedience to authority and how it relates to people acting in the way that they do, as well as how it can almost force people into committing crimes in our outside of war.

Milgram’s experiment was fairly straightforward, and he was focused on discovering how much our natural obedience to authority can influences our decisions, morals, and actions. The experiment consisted of a “professor” or “experimenter,” the test subjects who assumed the role of the “teacher,” and the “student” or “learner,” who was actually part of the experiment but who the test subjects were made to believe was too a random subject. The professor sat in a room with each of the teachers (test subjects) individually, and the student was in the room right next to them, not visible to the teacher and professor. The teacher was now put in front of a machine that they were told delivered electric charges to the student, from a small, harmless 15 V to a lethal 450 V.

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The experimenter (E) along with the teacher (T) sitting in a room next to the learner (L).

Image courtesy of

The test subjects were told that the machine would deliver the electric shock to the student whenever they flip the switch, yet in actuality the student didn’t feel anything. The rules were simple: the teacher asks the student questions that the professor provided them with, and for every wrong question the teacher was told to electrocute the student, progressing up in voltage after every wrong answer the student gives. And here comes the ultimate question: would the test subjects (teachers) be willing to deliver the final (lethal) 450 V to the student, a complete stranger to them, once he gets that question wrong? Or will the test subject simply give up on the experiment and decide not to cooperate, wishing not to harm the other person? Naturally, one would assume that no one in good conscience would administer these shocks to the other person knowing that, as the voltages go up, the student would be put through immense, nearly intolerable pain. However, the professor’s role in this has to be explained as it deals directly with the concept of authority. The professor, in the room with the test subjects, acted as the administrator of the experiment. Whenever the test subjects felt anxious or unsure about whether or not to continue, wishing not to harm the other person, the professor would utter phrases such as “it is necessary for you to continue” or “the experiment requires you to continue.” The test subjects were told that their contributions to this experiment would greatly benefit science (the “greater good” here) and this, coupled with the professor’s orders, yielded shocking results. 65% of the 40 volunteer test subjects, all of whom were average, every-day members of society, administered the 450 volts to the student. The test subjects were verbally ordered, not threatened or coerced, to administer these shocks, and had these electric shocks been real, then well over half of them would have killed an innocent stranger.

Granted, none of the test subjects felt comfortable with the experiment. All of them paused and questioned the morality of what they were doing, and many wanted to back out as they had trouble dealing with the fact that they were torturing another human being; but the authority figure’s persuasive tactics kept many of the volunteer subjects going until the end.

These results are extremely disturbing. The test subjects in this experiment were men and women, of all ages and professions; yet only 35% of them had the courage to stick with their own morals and disobey authority and decide not to continue the experiment. The BBC had a special in 2009 titled “How Violent are You?” where they conducted the same experiment but with 12 individuals. The result? 75% of them administered the lethal 450 V to the student. One of the test subjects was an 18 year old college student, naturally a very unassuming, almost harmless individual in society. Watching her go through the experiment was hard; she was unsure and kept looking to the professor for assurance, wondering if she was actually hurting the student. As the professor reassured her to continue, she worked up all the way to the 450V, which she know in full conscience could kill him, or at the very least cause excruciating pain and permanent damage to him. The general reaction among the subjects was similar; “I don’t take any pleasure in hurting him,” “I’m not going to continue if he’s in pain,” and so on. I’m assuming that all of us would feel the same concerns if put in this situation. Yet at the professor’s authoritative demand to continue, 9 of these 12 subjects put their trust in his orders and did as told.

Milgram said “The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.” Michael Portillo, The BBC reporter behind the 2009 BBC documentary, rather distraught, observed that “most shocking of all was to see normal people, like me, apparently inflict horrific torture on others. Evidently we can convince ourselves, in certain circumstances, that violence is absolutely justified” and “violence…is not some malevolent force out there, it’s very much in us.”

So what does this experiment say about us, specifically about our almost natural response to do as told? What makes some of us sum up the courage and say no to authority, yet makes most of us follow orders? And most importantly, what do you think are the real world implications of these results?



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3 Comments on “The Milgram Experiment: How Responsible Are We for Our Actions?”

  1. erfreed3 Says:

    Your post is interesting, in that, it scratches the surface of a much larger social construct. Milgram’s experiment shows quite conclusively that most of us are more prone to follow orders than question authority. To think of this in relation to the Dirty Hands issue is acceptable and very relevant. When I think of Dirty Hands, my mind always seems to wander into Nazi Germany. It has been argued by many, that during the Third Reich, the German people sat back and allowed one of the most devastating and disturbing events of human history; the Holocaust. Now, it is easy to go ahead and say, “How could the Germans watch the Nazi’s slaughter innocent Jewish people, neighbors, friends, etc.” Yet that is just one side of the coin. A larger point to consider via this post is that authority has the ability to evoke fear in people. I believe that there were many German people that felt that what Hitler was doing was wrong, however, is it easier to fight authority or obey it? I would argue that obedience is the “path of least resistance”. The “path of least resistance” is a term coined by modern day sociologist, Allan G. Johnson. Johnson says that we as humans almost always take the path of least resistance because it is what is most socially accepted. In the case of Nazi Germany, Hitler has control over Germany and so what he says is likely to be accepted by people. So in a sense, yes the German people can be seen as having dirty hands, yet the may have felt helpless to the situation.

    This can be seen as similar to Hobbes’ ideology, which claims that it is always in our best interest to follow the sovereign. Many Germans may have taken this approach, choosing to give up their morals and values in order to do what they thought would best serve the state. Now, I don’t know how the German people may have felt that what they were doing would be good for the state, however, that is what Hitler was preaching. And as horrible a person as Hitler was, he was also an incredibly charismatic leader. So to get back to your post, a person such as the 18-year old college student may have been fearful that if she did not follow orders she would be punished in some way. Our society is based on laws and authority, so when people are asked to do something in an authoritative way, the may often assume that their is a punishment attached with disobeying orders. To put it simply, it is easier to obey than rebel.

    More on Nazi Brainwashing/Milgram’s experiment:

  2. ymsyed Says:

    It’s interesting that this same experiment has now come in three of the classes that I am taking in the last few weeks. According to my psychology professor, the “professor” in the experiment explained to the subjects that the study was being conducted for the advancement of science. He essentially explained to them that all of mankind would benefit from the suffering that only a few individuals would have to bear. In this way, the subjects of the experiment directly faced the dirty hands conundrum. In the name of science, the vast majority of subjects were willing to punish the individuals in the study to fatal heights. This experiment is a testament to the fact that we all face the issue of dirty hands. It isn’t just politicians that must deal with this ethical dilemma.

    Similarly, I agree with erfreed3 that the Milgram experiment can also be possibly considered when looking at Nazi Germany–or any such political machine or organization, for that matter. Milgram’s experiment introduced the idea of the “agentic shift,” where an individual loses his own identity and becomes a part of some higher order or organization. They submit blindly to authority rather than obey it, and their ability to reflect on their orders and their actions is diminished.

    Being aware of such effects can help us overcome them and better understand the relationship among men and authority.

  3. tylerhoffman1 Says:

    The Milgram experiment shows that most people, no matter what age/race/education level, will do harmful things to other human beings if instructed by a higher power. Some will acquire the courage to say no, but it is difficult to decipher whether that stems from in-born or learned characteristics. If one is to put these experiment results into a real world application, it is kind of scary. One could and more likely would, go and kill someone if instructed by a higher power, even if that person did not directly harm the person doing the murder. If citizens were given the opportunity, it appears that the entire world population could be destroyed within a relatively short amount of time. While I have a hard time believing this, the Milgram experiment could foreshadow a large problem in the future, and according to the problems within the military, it already had.

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