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.