1961: Stanley Milgram “Obedience to Authority” experiments at Yale

Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, conducted the first of a series of “Obedience to Authority” experiments shortly after the trial of Adolph Eichman, the Nazi criminal tried in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity. Eichman’s defense was, not guilty, claiming that he had merely followed orders. Milgram sought to learn the conditions that led ordinary Germans to be transformed into perpetrators of torture and heinous crimes against inmates of Nazi concentration camps.

Milgram hired actors to be “learners” and recruited 40 men through newspaper ads who were told that they would serve as “teachers.” They were instructed by white coated experimenters who encouraged them to apply increasingly higher electric shocks whenever a “learner” answered a question incorrectly. A fake electric “shock generator” was used displaying 30 clearly marked switches indicating “Low” (15 to 100 volts), “Moderate” (75 to 120 volts), “Strong” (135 to 180 volts), “Danger: Severe Shock” (375 to 420 volts) and the highest levels marked “XXX” (435 to 450). The experimenters used a series of four prods: please continue or “please go on; the experiment requires that you continue; it is absolutely essential that you continue; you have no other choice you must go on” (Gordon. Mainstream Torture, 2014)

The experiment sought to answer the question: “For how long will someone continue to give increasingly stronger — more painful and risky — electric shocks to another person merely because they were told to do so by an authority figure, even if they thought they could be seriously hurt?” Milgrim sought to prove that German people who were conditioned to obey authority became accomplices to the Holocaust. His results have been replicated in several other obedience experiments showing that 65% of ordinary people continued to give increasingly higher volts of electric shocks even as the “students” cried out in pain. The experiment is a classic in psychology demonstrating the perils of obedience to authority: when people are conditioned to obey authority, they will do so even when instructed to act against their own conscience, such as becoming perpetrators of torture. Professor Alfred McCoy suggests that it is likely that Milgram’s Experiment was one of the 185 research programs funded by the CIA under MK-ULTRA projects which explored various facets of psychological torture. ( )

He notes that like others linked to mind-control projects, “Milgram showed an apparent disregard for his subjects,” recruiting them without serious screening by innocuous advertisements in the local newspaper. He then manipulated them, through deceptive instructions, to participate in torture. McCoy cites Milgram’s biographer who described the feelings expressed by one of Milgram’s subjects, a military veteran named William Menold who recalled feeling “an emotional wreck” a “basket case,” when he realized “that somebody could get me to do that stuff.” (McCoy, Science in Dachau’s Shadow, 2007)

Privately, Milgram himself viewed the experiment as “ethically questionable” because “it is not nice to lure people into the laboratory and
snare them into a situation that is stressful and unpleasant to them” (Milgram, 1974, pp. 1–43n cited by McCoy)

In 1962 Milgram conducted a variation of his Obedience to Authority experiment, “Relationship Condition” in which two friends are subjects; one becomes the learner the other the teacher. Only 15% of teachers completed the RC experiment — it was a powerful demonstration of disobedience — yet, Milgram never published the findings, nor did he even mention the experiment in his all encompassing book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974). (Nestar Russell. Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority “Relationship” Condition.. Social Sciences, 2014)