Q. I am in school studying social science and just read about Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments in 1963. I thought obedience was a good thing. What’s your take?
A. Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments in 1963 is one of the most famous of studies. His well-known experiments—the stuff of legend as one person described them—were designed to test obedience to authority. He crafted his obedience experiments in an effort to identify how far human beings will actually go when an authority figure orders them to hurt another human being. In his original experiments Milgram reported that 63% of the participants continued to administer all the shocks demanded of them even with the other individual (an actor) “screamed in agony.” Interestingly enough, one study found that Australian women were much less obedient.
Fast forward to 2015 when a group of Polish scientists decided to repeat Milgram’s experiments. Dr Tomasz Grzyb, a study author, reported that the results are just as surprising in this century as they were in the last. Eighty (80) people participated in the study. Researchers found that ninety (90) percent of participants went all the way to the maximum level of electrocution after being ‘ordered’ to do so by the experimenter. Grzyb said that half a century after Milgram’s original research into obedience to authority, a striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual. He also reported that upon learning about Milgram’s original experiments, a vast majority of people claimed, “I would never behave in such a manner.” Nevertheless, this repeat study has illustrated again the tremendous power of a situation in which the participants are confronted with obedience demands and how easily they can agree to things which they find unpleasant.
Ask yourself, “What you would do if repeatedly ordered to give a strong electric shock to a helpless stranger?” What you think you might do and you actually might do may be two different things. So my take? Obedience can be life-saving. Blind obedience can trigger behaviors that may kill you and / or others.
If you are interested in reading some research comments, here are URLs: