But I Was Only Following Orders

Generally, when we see such a defense for actions that we consider reprehensible we scoff at it. However, there is some research that indicates that people do tend to defer to authority figures and plunge ahead, when in retrospect or the abstract we wouldn’t have. The first experiment was by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram who conducted an experiment where the subject was ordered to give increasingly stronger electric shocks to another person in a room. Despite hearing the person being shocked scream, beg for mercy, and even feed back suggesting heart problems and also silence (implying the other person died), 2/3rds of the people would keep giving the shocks. In actuality nobody was shocked, but a recording of the person screaming, begging for mercy, etc. were played when the shocks were given.

The shocking results of the study and the nature of the study itself resulted in new testing guide lines which prevented duplication of Milgram’s study…until now. The television show Primetime in conjuction with Santa Clara University professor Jerry Burger have run a similar experiment.

One of the first participants in the study was Troy, a 39-year-old electrician. Like all the participants, he was paid $50 and was told that the money would be his to keep, even if he quit the experiment early. Brian, in the role of the “experimenter,” informed Troy that he was taking part in a learning and memory study and would be teaching word pairs to Ken, who was really a plant in the experiment.

If Ken got a word pair wrong, Troy was instructed to punish him with an electric shock from another room. The more word pairs Ken answered incorrectly, the more intense the shocks seemed to become. After getting a few wrong, at 75 volts, Troy heard what he thought was Ken shouting in pain — but it was really an automatic audio cue that was set to go off at that voltage.

Each shock after that triggered a similar audio cue of pain. At 105 volts, Troy became uncomfortable. At 150 volts, he heard Ken plead, “That’s all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me. … Let me out!” Troy looked questioningly at the experimenter, who told him he must continue. Though he was clearly uncomfortable, Troy continued with another word pair before the experiment was stopped.

Overall Milgram’s results held up. About 2/3rds of the men would continue giving the electric shock and for women the percentage was 73 percent. When a “moral minder” was included, basically a second person, the numbers did decline, but the decline might well be statistically insignificant. Basically, a rather creepy result that suggests many of us are all too willing to give into authority.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. Anderson says:

    I’m very surprised the APA let them do this; I would love to see their justification for it.

    That said, anything that brings more attention to the Milgram experiment (or to its cousin, the Stanford prison experiment) is welcome.

    (A recent book, A Question of Torture, listed circumstantial evidence that Milgram’s experiment was carried out at CIA behest. Considering the other stuff the CIA was up to, it would not be surprising.)

  2. Wayne says:

    Here are some variations of the experiment.


    I believe the conclusions are somewhat right but approach them with some skepticism. The variations had dramatically different results. Although they still indicted the conclusion could still be right.

    I’m not sure how much of the results were obeying authority or some other impulse like cooperative, not disappointing someone, or sadistic tendency brought forth because the subject perceive they didn’t have to take responsibility for their action because they were taking orders.

    I would like to see them set it up where there are two people (subject, fake-subject) on equal footing. One would administer the test and flip the switches while the other would determine what level of shock to administer, determine by guidelines. The experimenters can switch the jobs and establishing different situations to determine if there are other possible influences.

    There are other ways to set it up to isolate psychology traits.
    Nothing is proved until someone has thoroughly tried to disprove it.