Probably no single event in world history has distressed psychologists so much as the Nazi Holocaust. How could apparently normal, civilized members of a modern society treat their fellow human beings with such unparalleled cruelty and savagery? Early attempts to explain the Holocaust tended towards a psychoanalytic approach, in which bigotry and ethnic hatred are due to the authoritarian personality that resulted from poor parenting practices and traumatic childhood experiences. Unsurprisingly, this sort of simplistic explanation failed to satisfy many psychologists. In the early 1960s, Yale social psychologist Stanley Milgram decided to test an alternative explanation: there was something about the special social situation in which the Germans found themselves that could cause ordinary people to commit atrocities they would never consider committing under ordinary circumstances.
Milgram conducted a series of twenty experiments to test his hypothesis that strong social inﬂuences could cause people to behave in uncharacteristically cruel ways. In the ﬁrst experiment, forty men ranging in age from twenty to ﬁfty years old answered a newspaper ad and were selected to come to separate appointments at Milgram’s laboratory. At the laboratory, each participant was met by the “researcher” (actually a local high school science teacher, playing a role), who introduced him to another volunteer (a middle-aged accountant pretending to be another “volunteer”). The volunteer and the other “volunteer” were told that they would be participating in a study of the role of punishment in learning. They drew slips of paper to ﬁnd out who would be the teacher and who would be the student. Actually, both slips said “teacher,” but the confederate discarded his without revealing it.
The “student” was then led into an adjoining room and strapped into a chair, and electrodes were strapped to his wrists, from which wires ran through the wall into the next room. The wires apparently connected the chair to a box described as an electric shock machine. It was a shiny metal box with a row of thirty switches on it, labeled with voltages in an ascending order from left to right. The numbers ranged from 15 to 450 and were supplemented by descriptive labels, from “slight shock” through “moderate shock” to “Danger: Severe Shock” at 435. The last two switches were simply marked “XXX.”
The teacher was given a list of word pairs to read to the student, to be followed by a multiple-choice memory test. In the test, the teacher would read the ﬁrst word of a pair, followed by four choices for the second word of the pair. The student would indicate his choice by pushing one of four buttons, which corresponded to four light bulbs on the top of the shock machine. Whenever a wrong answer was given, the teacher was to administer a shock, starting with the lowest voltage and working his way up as the test progressed. The device was of course fake, and no shocks were delivered, but the volunteers were unaware of this.
At ﬁrst the test proceeded uneventfully, with some right answers and some wrong answers, and mild shocks following the wrong answers. At seventy-ﬁve volts, however, the learner made an audible sound of distress, and at 120 he shouted that the shock was painful. At 150, the learner shouted “Get me out of here! I refuse to go on!” At this point, the researcher merely said, “Please continue.” The student’s responses would eventually escalate to screams of agony, and he went completely silent at the 330-volt level, answering no further questions and making no sounds. At all stages, the researcher continued to sternly advise the teacher to continue, even saying, as the highest voltages approached, “You have no other choice; you must go on.”
Milgram was hoping to better understand the role of authority ﬁgures in obedience of unreasonable orders, but the pattern of results he found was astonishing even to him. Sixty-three percent of the teachers went on despite the student’s protests, all the way to the highest switch. Believing that perhaps the student’s protests had simply not been convincing enough, he added something to the next experiment. This time the student mentioned a slight heart condition while being strapped to the chair. Under these conditions, 65 percent went all the way. In follow-up studies, Milgram made subtle variations in the experimental social situation, and found that under different conditions, the proportion of fully compliant subjects who went all the way to the highest voltage varied from none to 93 percent.
Obedience was highest when the person giving the orders was both close at hand and was perceived to be a legitimate authority ﬁgure, supported by a prestigious institution. When he took his experiments off-campus, so that the experimenter was no longer seen as representing Yale, compliance went down. High levels of compliance also required that the victim be depersonalized or at a distance, as compliance was much lower if he was in the same room. This is a well-known phenomenon in wartime, as many soldiers will not ﬁre their riﬂes, or will not aim them properly, at an enemy they can clearly see. No such problem arises with those who operate large artillery pieces. Finally, high levels of compliance only occurred when no role models for deﬁance were present. If they saw another volunteer (actually, a confederate) disobeying the experimenter, subjects were far more likely to do so themselves. Milgram’s ﬁndings have been replicated in over 100 other studies in multiple countries.
It is important to note that Milgram’s subjects were not sadists, and while many of them followed instructions to the point of giving what they believed were potentially fatal shocks, the experience was not at all a pleasant one for them. Milgram observed participants “sweat, tremble, stutter, bit their lips, groan, and dig their ﬁngernails into their ﬂesh.” A conﬁdent, smiling businessman “was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck who was rapidly approaching a point of nervous collapse.” Although Milgram defended his experiments to the end, the ethical standards adopted by the American Psychological Association in 1973 were heavily inﬂuenced by reaction to his accounts of his volunteers’ experiences. Because of those standards, it would be virtually impossible to receive institutional approval for his experiments at any U.S. university today. Among other things, APA standards require that subjects be allowed to stop, without penalty, at any time.
Some fundamental lessons about obedience to authority and its relationship to evil arose from this research. In Milgram’s words, “The most fundamental lesson of our study is that ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.” Indeed, his subjects did not behave according to their own moral beliefs or expectations. When Milgram described his experiment in detail to a wide range of audiences and asked them at what level they would stop giving shocks, the average answer was 150 volts. When Milgram’s own subjects were asked at what level they should stop, the answer was again 150 volts. What people did in the experimental situation had nothing to do with either their expectations of their own behavior or their moral views. Milgram accomplished this by using a “foot-in-the-door” technique. He did not get his subjects to simply come into the lab and ﬂip a switch that they believed might kill a man—that would not have worked. Instead, he had them start with very small acts. Having done those and feeling they were justiﬁed, they then moved on to greater and greater acts. The Nazi leaders used very similar tactics. Suspecting that most German government workers would refuse to directly take part in the killing of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other “undesirables,” they found them nonetheless willing and able to handle the bureaucratic paperwork involved. The single most famous statement made by any of the Nazi leaders during the Nuremberg war crimes trials comes from Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of deportation of people to the concentration camps: “I was only following orders.” The same justiﬁcation was offered by some of the participants in the humiliation of Iraqi captives by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison, in 2004.
- Milgram, S. “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67 (1963): 371–378;
- Milgram, S. Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.