Milgram experiment: The Belief System of Obedience

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For Milgram’s other well-known experiment, see Small-world experiment.
The experimenter (E) orders the teacher (T), the subject of the experiment, to give what the latter believes are painful electric shocks to a learner (L), who is actually an actor and confederate. The subject is led to believe that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual electric shocks, though in reality there were no such punishments. Being separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level.[1]

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. They measured the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a “learner”. These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real.[2]

The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of people would fully obey the instructions, albeit reluctantly. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology[1] and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.[3]

The experiments began in July 1961, in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden Hall at Yale University,[4] three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the popular question at that particular time: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?”[5] The experiments have been repeated many times in the following years with consistent results within differing societies, although not with the same percentages around the globe.[6]

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