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What can we learn from the Milgram experiment

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] The Milgram Study is one of the most famous studies in all of psychology, and it demonstrated that regular everyday people will comply with an authority figure even if it means going against their own moral values and harming others. But what can we take from the study? What can we learn from it? Well the first thing that I wanna mention is that the study has been replicated. And when it has, the results remain about the same. No matter what country or time period this has been tested in, full compliance has always hovered around 61 to 66%. I also wanna note that today we think of this study as being highly unethical and assume that that wasn't the case back when it was created. But this study was perceived to be unethical in the '60s as well. In fact, Milgram was denied tenure at Harvard and kept from entering a number of academic institutions possibly because of negative perceptions associated with the experiment. But let's look a little closer at these results, let's look a little bit closer at the 65% number. One thing that Milgram found when he interviewed participants following the study was that many of them were ashamed of what they had done. They really felt horrible about it. But some of the participants, even some of the ones who were ashamed, tended to speak poorly of the victims, claiming that he wouldn't have been shocked if he had been smarter or if he had answered more questions correctly. And this is often known as The Just World Phenomenon: the idea that the universe is fair, so people must get what they deserve. So good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. And it seems that some people use this tendency to justify their actions. Assuming that things had gone wrong for the victim because he was deficient in some way. Another thing that seemed to have a strong effect on participants' willingness to shock to the end was their ability to shed responsibility. Many participants seemed much more comfortable when the experimenter indicated that he would take full responsibility for what happened and that the participant would not be responsible for any harm that he had done. And really think of this as it relates to the term: I was just following orders. And of course, this is the excuse that we see not only in the Milgram Study, but in many cases where people commit atrocities. They say: "I was just following orders", implying that someone else is responsible for what they have done. But is there any way that we can fix this? Is there anything that The Milgram Study can tell us about how we can stop ourselves from obeying authority in these kinds of situations? The first is to be aware of the two things that I've mentioned here. We should try to be aware of The Just World Phenomenon, we should try to stop ourselves from making judgements about why people are in the situations that they are in. We need to stop thinking that people are poor, or didn't do well in school, or don't have a job because they didn't work hard enough or care enough. We need to be more aware than that. And we also need to remind ourselves to take responsibility for our own actions to avoid placing blame on others. We also need to caution ourselves against a self-serving bias, which is the notion that we ourselves could never commit horrible acts like these. Because apparently, when put into the right situations, most of us would. Another is to steer clear of The Fundamental Attribution Error, which is our tendency to assume that others, or individuals in an out-group, behave a certain way based on inherent characteristics or personalities or flaws, all the while saying that we, or our in-group would only behave this way because of the situation that we're put in. And I think that that's what the real takeaway of the study is. It shows us how easy it is to think that others who commit atrocities are evil, while people who are like us would only perform evil acts because they're misguided. Because in the end, we are all misguided, we are all susceptible to authority in ways that many of us would find upsetting. And so it is important to have compassion for all people, both victims and aggressors because you don't actually know how you would react if you were put in their place. But at the same time, be skeptical when you hear that someone was just doing their job or just following orders, and try not to fall into that trap yourself.