30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute - Christian Jarrett 2011
Milgram’s obedience study
Stanley Milgram wanted to understand how ordinary people could take part in extraordinary cruelty. He was inspired by the terrible example of the Holocaust, in which ordinary citizens and soldiers collaborated in the evil schemes of the Nazis. In his experiments, volunteers took part in what they thought was a study of memory, giving electric shocks to a partner whenever he forgot things. In reality no shocks were given and the partner was an actor, who howled and protested as the volunteer delivered what he thought were more and more intense shocks. Would ordinary people deliver shocks of lethal voltage to an innocent man? When a scientist in a white coat stood in the corner of the room and merely reassured the volunteers with phrases such as ’the experiment requires that you continue’, 65 per cent would deliver what they believed were lethal shocks. Milgram’s study was actually a series of eighteen studies, which tested how different factors affected the likelihood that volunteers would obey an authority figure and deliver lethal shocks. He found that the remoteness of the victim, the authority of the person giving the orders and the presence of others in the same situation who obeyed, all increased the likelihood of someone complying with orders to kill.
We’re all capable of doing awful things to others if told to by someone in authority.
When Milgram described his procedure in detail to a group of psychiatrists they predicted that only a ’pathological fringe’ would obey the experimenter to the lethal end. Many who hear of Milgram’s study protest they wouldn’t obey, or that people today wouldn’t behave in the same way (Milgram carried out his studies in the 1960s and 1970s). Unfortunately, the lesson Milgram teaches about the dangers of obedience to authority is as true today as it was when he carried out his classic studies.
THE BYSTANDER EFFECT
Would you deliver a lethal electric shock to an innocent man just because an authority figure told you to? Research suggests that you probably would.