Imagine that you've volunteered for an experiment, but when you show up at the lab you discover the researcher wants you to murder an innocent person. You protest, but the researcher firmly states, "The experiment requires that you do it." Would you acquiesce and kill the person?
When asked what they would do in such a situation, almost everyone replies that of course they would refuse to commit murder. But Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiment, conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s, revealed that this optimistic belief is wrong. If the request is presented in the right way, almost all of us quite obediently become killers.
Milgram told subjects they were participating in an experiment to determine the effect of punishment on learning. One volunteer (who was, in reality, an actor in cahoots with Milgram) would attempt to memorize a series of word pairs. The other volunteer (the real subject) would read out the word pairs and give the learner an electric shock every time he got an answer wrong. The shocks increased in intensity by fifteen volts with each wrong answer.
The experiment began. The learner eventually got some answers wrong, and then some more, and soon the shocks had reached 120 volts. At this point the learner started crying out, "Hey, this really hurts." At 150 volts the learner screamed in pain and demanded to be let out. Confused, most volunteers turned around and asked the researcher what they should do. The researcher always calmly replied, "The experiment requires that you continue."
Milgram actually had no interest in the effect of punishment on learning. What he really wanted to see was how long people would keep pressing the shock button before they refused to participate in the increasingly sadistic experiment. Would they remain obedient to the authority of the researcher up to the point of killing someone?
To Milgram's surprise, even though volunteers could plainly hear the agonized cries of the learner echoing through the walls of the lab from the neighboring room, two-thirds of them continued to press the shock button all the way up to the end of scale, 450 volts, by which time the learner had fallen into an eerie silence, apparently dead. Milgram's subjects sweated and shook, and some laughed hysterically, but they kept pressing the button. Even more disturbingly, when volunteers could neither see nor hear feedback from the learner, compliance with the order to give ever greater shocks was almost 100%.
Milgram later commented, "I would say, on the basis of having observed a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and informed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town."