Obedience to Authority

A nice companion piece to Eichmann in Jerusalem, this is the complete report of the Milgram experiments that I’ve long heard of. The Yale experiments took place in the 1950s as Milgram tried to understand how ordinary Germans could have let the Holocaust happen. In the experiment, the victim is asked to zap an actor with (fake) electric current when they get a word pair answer wrong, increasing the voltage each time and continuing despite the yelps of pain from the actor. Not surprisingly, blind obedience went up as soon as the person receiving the “shocks” was placed farther away; distance creating the necessary space for ignoring the humanity of the actor. Some people refused to continue but they were a sad tiny minority. Most blasted all the way to 450+ volts under the command of the experimenter. There are a lot of factors at play, and they addressed them in subsequent versions of the experiment. Most interesting was taking it out of the formal Yale lab and into a somewhat scuzzy storefront in downtown, removing all affiliation with the university. People were much less likely to blindly follow instructions. Also played with factors like: whether the person getting zapped looked like he deserved it, the personality of the research instructor, one group deigned to test women (they’re just as blindly obedient as men), whether having just a normal guy take over when the researcher stepped out for a phone call had any effect (people less likely to obey just a man on the street).