In 1961 a young assistant professor at Yale University conducted an experiment on obedience. The aim was to see how far ordinary citizens would comply with an order to inflict pain on another human being. Members of the public were recruited and the experiments began. Two participants were introduced to one another, with one asked to play the role of “teacher” and the other the role of “learner”. The learner, who was an actor hired by Professor Milgrom, was strapped into a chair wired to a generator. The person playing the role of teacher was told that the experiment would test the effect of punishment on learning. They were to ask a series of questions, and each time the learner gave the wrong answer, they were to punish him with a jolt of electricity. Starting with 15 volts the teacher was to increase the voltage for every mistake.
To Professor Milgrom’s astonishment over 60% of participants pushed the voltage past the warning level which read “Danger – Severe Shock”. All this while they heard the “victim” moaning, then screaming in pain. Psychologists had suggested only a small group of the population with psychopathic tendencies would go through to this level, yet here were over 60% of people drawn from the general population of New Haven acting in ways that we all believe are cruel.
What do the experiments prove? Social behaviour experts question whether they demonstrate people’s willingness to blindly obey authority. After all people routinely disobey authority when they defy their parents, speed in their car, or fail to do what school teachers ask. Lee Ross of Stanford University and his colleague Richard Nisbett believe the Milgrom experiments show how decisive is context for our behaviour. In order to disobey participants had to step out of the whole situation and deny the validity of the experiment to the experimenter. Ross and Nisbett suggest that people tend to do thing because of where they are, not who they are. In different circumstances people will act in a manner quite different to how they might act in another set of circumstances.
Source: reported in The Good Weekend magazine December 2, 2000