In reality of course, the partner in the experiment was a confederate, and was scripted to provide wrong answers throughout the learning process--thereby inducing stronger shocks from the participant. This is where the obedience part enters in. At some point, every participant does not wish to continue shocking their partner, and at these time points, the experimenter--wearing a white lab coat-- instructs the participant that "the experiment requires that you continue." After several of these such prods 26 of the 40 original participants shocked their partner all the way to the maximum 450 volts.
Why is this research amazing? It's amazing because it is unexpected. In the paper itself, Milgram writes that he asked a sample of regular people and experts about the procedures in the experiment and exactly how many people they'd guess would shock the partner all the way to the 450 volt mark. All participants answered between 0 and 3% of participants (most experts said 3%, consistent with the number of estimated sociopaths). The actual results were much more shocking (pun intended). The other reason I love this research is because it gives us a reason why people do mean things to others. It's not simply because they are mean, rather, it is because of the powerful social situations that change how we think and act toward others. Obedience turned the regular people of New Haven into evil people.
Why is this research still so relevant? Milgram's inspiration for his experiment came from Nazi German concentration camps. Milgram was struck by a book about Nazi German officers which talked about the important role of obedience in some of the horrific acts during that time. In the book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer writes, "in the name of obedience they were party to, and assisted in, the most wicked large scale actions in the history of the world." It was this observation that led to Milgram's experiment. It is also this point that really rings true today. We can think of more recent examples, like those of the Abu Ghraib prison camps wherein many of the officers who committed these human rights violations did so because they claimed to be obeying orders.
Was it ethical? First of all, it is important to note that people have been replicating Milgram's results for the past 40-50 years, so most universities consider the work to be worthwhile, ethical, and important. But not everyone thinks this way. For example, over at the hardest science our colleague writes that CITI, the national training program for helping people to learn research ethics has an entire section on the Milgram experiment. In this section, CITI compares Milgram's experiment to such horrors as "Nazi medical experiments and the Tuskegee syphilis study."CITI it seems, may have some reservations about the original experiments (although see this post on the hardest science). I actually think that, with today's standards Milgram's actual study would have been canceled. In the paper, Milgram writes about serious adverse events, emphasis mine:
"Many subjects showed signs of nervousness in the experimental situation, and especially upon administering the more powerful shocks. In a large number of cases the degree of tension reached extremes that are rarely seen in sociopsychological laboratory studies. Subjects were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh. These were characteristic rather than exceptional responses to the experiment." -- Stanley Milgram (1963)
Milgram's experiments yielded amazing results, yet I'm not sure I'd have the stones to continue some of my experiments through to their conclusion if they were making someone dig their fingernails into their flesh. I wonder if Milgram could have halted some of these experiments a little early, and relieved the tension felt by these extremely agitated participants. That may have been a more ethical response, but one that may have diminished the impact of these studies on the field of psychology.
What are your thoughts about the Milgram Study? Share them with me in the comments!
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67 (4), 371-378 DOI: 10.1037/h0040525