Are you capable of Murder?
Maddie Petrie | 6 March 2017

Authority is the right or power to enforce rules and giveorders; it is a source of reliable information and therefore we trust it. Weare taught from a young age to respect authority, but is it always a good thingto do what you are told?


In the 1960s American psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted toknow if Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann (chief architect in the deportation of European Jews) could be held responsible for his part in the holocaust. Were he and his accomplices just 'following orders'?


Milgram designed and carried out his world famous experiment that investigated the relationship between authority and obedience around the time of Eichmann's trial. The results of this experiment were and still are controversial and shocking, most of us would like to think we would pass 'The Milgram Experiment' -- the truth is, the majority wouldn't.


How it works:

You are asked to take part in a study of memory and learning in which they are investigating the effect of punishment on learning. You and another volunteer draw straws to see who will be the 'teacher' and who will bethe 'learner'. You draw the 'teacher'. You then see the 'learner' being strapped into a chair and told that 'Although the shocks can be extremely painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage'. You are then given a sample shock of 45 volts.


In a separate room you are sat in front of a 'shockgenerator' with switches increasing in 15 volts, from 15 to 450 volts. The supervisor tells you to read a series of pairs of words into the microphone for the 'learner' to hear. If they repeat the sequence back to you incorrectly, you must tell them the correct answer and give them a shock, increasing the voltage each time.


You can hear the 'learner' through their corresponding microphone. After a few wrong answers the 'learner' begins to shout out and protest against the pain and eventually falls silent.


How it 'really' works:

Each step is very real for the 'teacher'. But don't worry! What the 'teacher' isn't told is that the 'learner' does not receive a single shock and what they hear is in fact a pre-recorded actor's voice. The 'learner' is played by an actor who is mild-mannered and likeable; the volunteer will always draw the 'teacher' straw.


The Results:

Each volunteer was filmed and notes were taken by observers watching through the camera. If at any point the 'teacher' was unsure whether to go on, they would receive a series of prompts that would encourage them to continue, for example: 'please continue' or 'please go on'; 'The experiment requires that you continue'; 'it is absolutely essential that you continue';and 'you have no other choice, you must go on'. For most people these prompts are all they need to carry on with the experiment.


Most people became nervous and tense; some were particularly stressed, with a few breaking into fits of laughter. Three subjects had anxiety seizures, one of which was so violent they had to stop the experiment. These volunteers had the true nature of the experiment explained to them afterwards, and were evaluated by a psychiatrist a year later. They were found to have no signs of damage from the experiment, and 84% said they were glad to have been involved.


The most shocking part of this experiment was the number of people who continued to the end. Out of 40 subjects, all obeyed up to 300 volts, 35 continued, 4 stopped after 315 volts, and 26 out of 40 continued to the end of the experiment, 450 volts. A poll of 40 psychiatrists had predicted that by 300 volts, when the 'learner' refuses to answer; only 3.737% of subjects would proceed.


The Milgram experiment has been repeated many times finding this evidence universal, although percentages do vary around the globe. Milgram put these results, and why the subjects continued to increase the voltage pastthe safe amount, down to nine factors:


1.      The locationof the study at a prestigious scientific centre;

2.      The apparentworthy purpose of the study;

3.      The subjectbelieved the learner had volunteered and consented;

4.      The subject had made a commitment;

5.      Obligation wasstrengthened by payment;

6.      They believedtheir role as 'teacher' was a chance selection, they could have been 'learner';

7.       Situation wasnew, and they could not discuss it with anyone

8.       They weretold the shocks were not harmful

9.      Up to the 20thshock the 'learner' provided answers, so was still taking part in the study

James Routledge 2016