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Milgram’s Experiment On How Far Will You Go To Obey An Order – Does It Apply Today?

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Published on: August 4, 2020

Does anyone remember Stanley Milgram?  If not, maybe you remember what has become known as Milgram’s Experiment.  The question that should burn in everyone’s mind today, looking around at all the individuals wearing masks and following unconstitutional, illegal, unlawful, despotic, tyrannical executive orders by some governors and local municipalities, is “are we witnessing the real practice of Milgram’s conclusion on obedience to authority today”?

In case you are not familiar with Stanley Milgram and his experiment, a brief history is provided.

Stanley Milgram was a 26-year-old social psychologist at Yale University.  He started his experiments in 1961, approximately one year after the trial of World War II criminal Adolf Eichmann had begun in order to answer his original question of whether nations other than Germany could or would differ in their degrees of conformity to authority.

To conduct his experiment, Milgram advertised for participants ages 20 to 50 from all walks of life offering to pay the participants $4.50.  Milgram hypothesized that Americans, those purveyors of rugged individualism and patriotism, would not easily acquiesce to conformity or inflict harm upon others at someone else’s command.  After choosing 40 participants that would be “teachers,” Milgram had some of his associates “act” as learners, with an individual wearing a white coat (experimenter) as the “authority” sitting in the same room with the “teacher”.  The “learner” was taken to a separate room, where the “teacher” could not see the individual, and the “learner” was attached to electrodes that would deliver an electric shock at the hand of the “teacher”.  What participants (teachers) did not know was the “learner” was not connected to the electrodes that delivered the electric shock.

Behaviorial Scientist detailed the experiment.

In Milgram’s original experiment, participants took part in what they thought was a “learning task.” This task was designed to investigate how punishment—in this case in the form of electric shocks—affected learning. Volunteers thought they were participating in pairs, but their partner was in fact a confederate of the experimenter. A draw to determine who would be the “teacher” and who would be the “learner” was rigged; the true volunteer always ended up as the teacher and the confederate as learner.

The pairs were moved into separate rooms, connected by a microphone. The teacher read aloud a series of word pairs, such as “red–hammer,” which the learner was instructed to memorize. The teacher then read the target word (red), and the learner was to select the original paired word from four alternatives (ocean, fan, hammer, glue).

If the learner erred, the teacher was instructed to deliver an electric shock as punishment, increasing the shock by 15-volt increments with each successive error. Although the teacher could not see the learner in the adjacent room, he could hear his responses to the shocks as well as to the questions. According to a prearranged script, at 75 volts, the learner started to scream; from 150 volts to 330 volts, he protested with increasing intensity, complaining that his heart was bothering him; at 330 volts, he absolutely refused to go on. After that, the teacher’s questions were met by silence. Whenever the teacher hesitated, the experimenter pressed the teacher to continue, insisting that the “the experiment requires that you continue” and reminding him that “although the shocks may be painful, they cause no permanent tissue damage.”

What Milgram discovered was shocking.  In this version of the experiment, 65% (26 out of 40 participants) of the subjects “continued to inflict shocks right up to the 450-volt level, despite the learner’s screams, protests, and, at the 330-volt level, disturbing silence.”  Once reaching the 450-volt level, the participants obeyed the “experimenter’s” instruction to continue to administer the 450-volt level shocks when the subject failed to respond. reported on the three categories Milgram divided the participants

Obeyed but justified themselves. Some obedient participants gave up responsibility for their actions, blaming the experimenter. If anything had happened to the learner, they reasoned, it would have been the experimenter’s fault. Others had transferred the blame to the learner: “He was so stupid and stubborn he deserved to be shocked.”

Obeyed but blamed themselves. Others felt badly about what they had done and were quite harsh on themselves. Members of this group would, perhaps, be more likely to challenge authority if confronted with a similar situation in the future.

Rebelled. Finally, rebellious subjects questioned the authority of the experimenter and argued there was a greater ethical imperative calling for the protection of the learner over the needs of the experimenter. Some of these individuals felt they were accountable to a higher authority.

Why were those who challenged authority in the minority? So entrenched is obedience it may void personal codes of conduct.

It stands to reason there was some question of ethical, moral, and methodological principles of Milgram’s experiment by other psychologists.  The subsequent National Research Act of 1974 provided restrictions on the use of human subjects which prevented others from conducting additional experimentation like Milgram’s that would cause participants to experience extreme distress.  One of Milgram’s biggest critics was Gina Perry, who uncovered hundreds of audiotapes of Milgram’s experiment in the Yale Archives, and indicated several problems existed with Milgram’s study.  However, other studies expanded upon Milgram with similar results.

According to Behavorial Scientist:

Although full replications of Milgram’s experiment are precluded in the United States because of ethical and legal constraints on experimenters, there have been replications attempted in other countries, and attempts by U.S. experimenters to sidestep these constraints.

A replication conducted by Dariusz Dolinski and colleagues in 2015 generated levels of obedience higher than the original Milgram experiment, although the study may be criticized because it employed lower levels of shock.

More intriguing was the 2009 replication by Jerry Burger, who found an ingenious way of navigating the ethical concerns about Milgram’s original experiment. Burger noted that in the original experiment 79 percent of subjects who continued after the 150 volts—after the learner’s first screams—continued all the way to the end of the scale, at 450 volts. Assuming that the same would be true of subjects today, Burger determined how many were willing to deliver shocks beyond the 150-volt level, at which point the experiment was discontinued.

About 70 percent were willing to continue the experiment at this point, suggesting that subjects remain just as compliant in the 21st century. Nonetheless, Burger’s study was based upon a questionable assumption, namely that 150-volt compliance has remained a reliable predictor of 450-volt compliance. Subjects today might be willing to go a bit beyond 150 volts, but perhaps not to the far end of the scale (after learners demand that the experiment be discontinued etc.). In fact, this assumption begs the critical question at issue.

However, French television came to the rescue. One game show replicated Milgram’s experiment, with the game show host as the authority and the “questioner” as the subject. In a study reported in the 2012 European Review of Applied Psychology, J.-L. Beauvois and colleagues replicated Milgram’s voice feedback condition, with identical props, instructions, and scripted learner responses and host prods. One might question whether a game show host has as much authority as a scientific experimenter, but whatever authority they had managed to elicit levels of obedience equivalent to Milgram’s original experiment (in fact somewhat higher, 81 percent as opposed to the original 65 percent). It would seem that at least French nationals are as compliant today as Milgram’s original subjects in the 1960s.

In fact, the replication suggests a darker picture. One of optimistic findings of the original Milgram experiment was his condition 7, in which there were three teachers, two of whom (both confederates of the experimenter) defied the experimenter. Given this social support, most subjects refused to continue to administer shocks, suggesting that social solidarity serves as a kind of a defense against destructive obedience to authority. Unfortunately, this did not occur in the French replication, in which the production assistant protested about the immorality of the procedure with virtually no effect on levels of obedience. And unfortunately, not in the Burger study either: Burger found that the intervention of an accomplice who refused to continue had no effect on the levels of obedience. So it may be that we are in fact more compliant today than Milgram’s original subjects, unmoved by social support. A dark thought for our dark times.

In light of Milgram’s experiment and the variations by Burger and Dolinski, could we make the conclusion that the individuals wearing masks and social distancing, following the “presumed” authority, are the real-life example of Milgram’s experiment?  Considering how many times Dr. Anthony Fauci, Trump, various State governors, and local office holders are pushing masks, not to mention the public being inundated with television advertisements, print advertisements and audio commercials for mask use, while businesses are attempting to “mandate” masks against the law, we are witnessing the “you must continue” prompt of Milgram through “you need to wear a mask” suggestion.  And, the “participants”, the vast numbers of the American populace, have complied.

Some of the public, in general, has assumed the role of “mask police” or “mask gestapo,” engaging in verbal and physical assaults on non-mask wearers, because someone with the “presumed” authority suggested mask wearing and/or instructed the public to commit unlawful acts against innocent individuals.  Some of the public are even “snitching” on individuals who have broken no law because of following a “presumed” authority.

Two 21st century variations on Milgram’s experiment produced the alarmingly same results, maybe an even higher compliance rate, than Milgram’s original experiment.  As fresh as the atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II were in the minds of the populace in 1960, the experiment indicated that research participants would inflict harm and possibly death upon an innocent individual because someone with a “presumed” authority ordered it.  

What does this say about Americans as a people and a society?  There is not one society in the world – not one, due to the sinful nature of man, that is immune from committing the atrocities seen in World War II perpetrated by the Nazis.  Let that sink in for a moment.

So, take this to the next level of the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine.  The “participants” will receive the prompts and the vast majority will comply.  But, what about when some “authority”, whether Trump, Fauci, Redfield, State governors, local office holders, health department officials, and/or Bill Gates, comes along and declares it to be mandatory?    Applying the results of Milgram’s experiment with the variations by Burger and Dolinski, one can be assured there will be plenty of those “assigned” (65% to 70-80%) to inject the populace despite their objections, cries, and resistance.  

What if the order is given to members of the military by someone who has the authority to command the military – be it Trump directly or a general receiving an order from Trump?  The ultimate question becomes this – will 65% to 70-80% of those given the order to vaccinate the public go so far as to kill an individual who forcefully resists if the command contains that order?  The results of all the experiments say it would happen.

In a different scenario, if the military members were ordered to inject the public with this COVID-19 vaccine and 65% to 70-80% complied and the vaccine resulted in the deaths of millions, Milgram’s experiment suggested that those compliant in the atrocity would either Obey then justify their actions or obey then blame themselves.  Those who would rebel have already been taken into account.  It would be another “I was just following orders” or “I was doing as I was told” defense that so many Nazis at the Nuremberg trials used as a defense.  Some may even blame the order giver or the victims themselves.

Stalin never directly killed one Soviet citizen.  Mao never directly killed any Chinese citizen.  Hitler never directly killed one Jew, gypsy, mentally ill, physically disabled, homeless or other individuals of other nationalities or creeds.  Yet, under these three tyrants, millions were murdered.  So, you have to ask yourself, “Who dunnit?”  Next time you are in a room with ten people, remember that as many as 7 out of 10 would inflict injury, harm or death upon another when given an order by someone in a position of “presumed” or “assumed” authority.   In other words, only three people in that room would rebel.  

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