Student Interest

Why Do We Obey Authority? – The Milgram Experiments

In 1960 the trial of Otto Adolf Eichmann, a German high official, took place because of his crimes in World War II in regards to the Holocaust. When asked about his contribution, he said that he was just following orders. This shocked people because that kind of statement gives evil a different shape or meaning. Could some people truly do inhumane, evil things just for obeying the orders of an authority? In this context, Stanley Milgram conducted his experiment surrounding the question: why do we follow orders? 

 The objective of the experiment was to find out until what point a person is capable of doing harm to another if it’s requested by an authority. The experiment consisted of 3 people: the investigator, the teacher, and the student. The participant of the experiment was always given the teacher role, and the other two roles were actors, but the participant didn’t know this. The experiment went as follows.

The teacher had to show the student a series of paired words that would be later asked back to him. In the case that the student didn’t respond correctly, the teacher had to shock him. For each wrong answer, the shock intensity went up by 15 volts until reaching a maximum of 450 volts. But the student never received the electric shocks; pre-recorded screams were played at the time of the electric shocks being administered. In the case that the teacher decided that they didn’t want to continue the experiment, the investigator would intervene by giving the teacher a series of requests or orders to continue the experiment, but also the investigator notified the teacher that they would be the one responsible if the student were to die because of the electric shocks.

In total, 40 male participants were used in the Milgram experiment, but only 25 of the participants went all the way to 450 volts. All of them obeyed until 300 volts, however. With these results, Milgram concluded that when someone enters a hierarchy, they become an agent that is responsible for following the leader’s orders. The individuals don’t feel responsible for their actions, but they do feel responsible for obeying the leader.

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