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Social Psychology: reading informational text; The Milgram Experiment 9


This passage is a lightly edited
of an instructional video.
Read the video transcript, then answer the practice question.

Milgram's Experiment on Obedience

by Brooke Miller
  1. In 1963, Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments that explored humans’ obedience to authority figures. The findings shocked the world and continue to be discussed today. The Milgram studies were conducted in order to study the willingness of participants—average everyday Americans—to obey authority figures who instructed them to perform behaviors that conflicted with their personal beliefs and morals. As you can probably imagine, it might be hard to recruit participants when that's what you're trying to study. In order to keep the participants from finding out what he was actually trying to look at, Milgram used deception. He started by posting ads looking for people to participate in a study about “learning and memory”. The researchers really tried to make it a point to recruit average, everyday people.
  2. When recruits arrived at the lab, they were told that they were going to be participating in a study that was trying to look at the effects of punishment on learning—do people learn best after they've been punished for making a mistake? There were two participants involved in the study, and they randomly decided by picking out of a hat who was going to play the role of teacher and who was going to play the role of the learner. In reality, one of the participants was actually a confederate, meaning that they were working with the experimenter and were secretly in on the point of the study. Choosing the roles out of a hat wasn't actually random in this case because it was rigged in such a way that the actual participant always got the teacher role and the confederates always got the learner role.
  3. While the teacher was watching, the experimenter hooked the learner up to a number of electrodes, and they were both told that the teacher was going to teach the learner a number of word pairs, and that the learner would be shocked whenever they gave the wrong answer. In some versions of the study, the person playing the learner noted that they were worried about the experiment because they had a heart condition, so they were worried about the shocks, at which point the experimenter would explain to them not to worry, that the shocks would be painful but not dangerous. The teacher was then taken to a different room where they couldn't see the learner. They had no visual contact with them. And they were sat in front of a box of switches that they were told was a shock box. The first switch was labeled 15 volts, and the switches increased at 15 volt increments until it reached 450 volts. Along with an indication of voltage, there were also labels that went along with the switches: they went from “slight shock” to “moderate shock” to “strong shock” and then things like “very strong shock” and “intense shock” and “extremely intense shock,” and then kind of troublingly, a label that noted that the switches would give a “severe shock” and the warning “DANGER XXX.”
  4. The teacher was instructed to read a long list of word pairs to the learner, and then when they were finished, to go back and read the first word of each pair, and then offer four possible pair words. Of those possible four pair words, the learner would indicate what they thought the answer was by pressing a button, and this was displayed on a screen to the teacher. Whenever the learner made an error, the teacher was instructed to give them a shock at increasing increments. The first wrong answer got a shock of 15 volts, the second one 30 volts, etcetera. And just so you're aware, even though the teacher thought that they were giving the learner shocks, no actual shocks were given. But, of course, it was really important that the teacher really thought that the punishment was being administered.
  5. After giving a number of correct answers, the participants seemingly started giving incorrect ones. And of course, the pattern of correct and incorrect answers that the learner was given was determined by the experimenter well beforehand. The first couple of shocks really didn't elicit that much of a reaction. The learner would kind of gasp when they happened, but nothing more than that. However, after several increasing shocks, the learner would start to pound on the wall and cry out in pain. Eventually, they would start to complain about their heart condition, saying things like "let me out, my heart is bothering me, let me out.” And as the shocks increased, they would continue to yell and scream that they wanted to quit. And after this, after a certain point, all responses from the learner would cease and there would only be silence from the other room. If at any point during the study, the participant playing the role of the teacher wanted to check on the other participant, or stop the experiment, or even just looked back at the experimenter for guidance to see what they should do, they were told things like “please continue” and “the experiment requires that you continue,” And even “you have no other choice, you must go on.” The experiment came to an end after either four verbal protests from the teacher, from the participant, or after they had given the final shock of 450 volts to the silent learner three times.
  6. Before he started his experiment, Milgram had asked a number of professors and psychology students and clinical psychologists whether or not people would obey the commands of the experimenter. They overwhelmingly said that people would not, that most of them would stop when the learner protested, and that very, very few people would shock all the way, and that those that did were probably psychopaths. When the results of the study came out, they were actually really disturbing because 65% of participants shocked all the way. 65%. And to be clear, those participants didn't do so without feeling. They had protested and they were sweating, and they were trembling, but they still obeyed the commands of the experimenter and shocked to 450 volts. In the versions of the experiment where the learner claimed to have a heart condition, and specifically claimed that the shocks were hurting their heart, full compliance did drop, but not by much. It dropped to 63%.
  7. Again, these were everyday, average Americans who heard the cries of people they were tormenting and continued with the task. I want to end with a quote from Milgram. It's kind of a long quote, but I think that it's really important and really sums up the results of the study. He wrote:
    “I set up a simple experiment at Yale to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any length on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their parts, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work became patently clear, and they were asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Practice question

Read the excerpt from the text.
“After giving a number of correct answers, the participants seemingly started giving incorrect ones. And of course, the pattern of correct and incorrect answers that the learner was given was determined by the experimenter well beforehand.”
Which of the text’s claims does this evidence support?
Choose 1 answer: