This study is well known among helping professionals—it’s called the Milgram Study—and it’s quite infamous.
The question had to do with the Holocaust and the events leading up to World War II. The world was stunned with the happenings in Nazi Germany and their acquired surrounding territories that came out during the Eichmann Trial.
Eichmann, a high ranking official of the Nazi Party, was tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The question was, "Could it be that Eichmann, and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Or could we call them all accomplices?"
Stanley Milgram performed a series of studies on the obedience to authority. The experiments were done at Yale in 1961-1962:
In response to a newspaper ad offering $4.50 for one hour's work, you agree to take part in a Psychology experiment investigating memory and learning.
You are introduced to a stern looking experimenter in a white coat and a rather pleasant and friendly co-subject. The researcher explains that the experiment will look into the role of punishment in learning, and that one will be the "teacher" the other the "learner." Lots are drawn to determine roles, and it is decided that you will become the "teacher."
Your co-subject is taken to a room where s/he is strapped to a chair to prevent movement and an electrode is placed on his/her arm. You, as the "teacher", are taken to an adjoining room which contains a generator. You are instructed to read a list of two word pairs and ask the "learner" to repeat them. If the "learner" gets the answer correct, you move on to the next set of words. If the answer is incorrect, you are supposed to shock the "learner" starting at 15 volts.
The ‘generator’ has 30 switches marked at 15 volt increments. up to 450 volts. Each switch is marked with a rating, ranging from "slight shock" to "danger: severe shock". The final two switches are labeled "XXX". You are supposed to increase the shock each time the "learner" misses a set of words on the list.
The drawing of lots was rigged and the “learner” was always a ‘stooge’—part of the experimental team who responded to a light the ‘teacher’ could not see. When prompted by the light, the stooge acted as if s/he had been shocked, though no shock had actually been administered.
At times, the worried "teachers" questioned the experimenter, asking who was responsible for any harmful effects resulting from shocking the learner at such high levels. Upon receiving the reassurance that the experimenter assumed full responsibility, the subjects continued shocking, even though some were obviously extremely uncomfortable doing so.
Ultimately 65% of all of the "teachers" punished the "learners" to the maximum 450 volts. No subject stopped before reaching 300 volts.
Milgram also conducted several follow-up experiments to determine what might change the likelihood of maximum shock delivery. In the ‘touch-proximity condition’ the teacher was required to hold the hand of the learner on a "shock plate" in order to give him shocks above 150 volts.
The most amazing thing to note from this follow-up experiment was that 32% of the subjects in the proximity-touch condition held the hand of the learner on the shock plate while administering shocks in excess of 400 volts.
Further experiments showed that 'teachers' were less obedient when the experimenter communicated with them by telephone versus in person.
Males and females were equally likely to obey the authority figure though women generally demonstrated more nervousness while doing so.
Other researchers replicated the study and demonstrated similar findings. The experiments spanned a 25-year period from 1961 to 1985 and were carried out in Australia, South Africa and in several European countries. In one study conducted in Germany, more than 85% of the subjects administered a lethal electric shock to the 'learner'.
Today, the field of psychology would deem this study highly unethical but it revealed some extremely important findings: the theory that only the most severe monsters on the sadistic fringe of society would follow such cruel instructions is disclaimed. Findings show that "two-thirds of the study’s participants fall into the category of ‘obedient' subjects, and that they represent ordinary people drawn from the working, managerial, and professional classes.
This tells us much about human nature. As with the study outlined in an earlier post, people will follow the orders of those they perceive to be authorities. One doesn’t need to be in the military or otherwise especially indoctrinated to follow orders in order to do so. In fact, we’ve all been taught since infancy to do what we’re told—and we do.
Of course, each of us hopes we would be among the minority who would rebel under such circumstances—but we can’t know, until we’re faced with such an order, how we would respond.
And, of course, these findings have relevance during the disillusioning times we find ourselves in today. We can all stand to find the rebels within ourselves during this time of turmoil.