The Milgrom Experiments

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

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is one of the most recognisable landmarks on the planet. Built as the grand entrance to an 1889 world trade fair, the tower receives thousands of visitors every year and is a favourite spot for romantic rendevous.

But when it was built there was ferocious opposition. A group of leading artists and writers, including the author of “The Three Musketeers”, Alexander Dumas, filed a petition that read:

We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects and lovers of the beauty of Paris, do protest with all our vigor and all our indignation, in the name of French taste and endangered French art and history, against the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.

History vindicated Alexandre Eiffel. In 1889 he was roundly condemned. Today he is praised. His story shows us that what matters is not the opinions others have of us and what we do – these will change according to what is culturally fashionable – but holding onto what we believe to be the values and wisdom of God.