Stanley Milgram’s experiment chronicled in his 1963 paper “Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View” is one of the most important and famous psychological experiments ever conducted. And for our purposes, it demonstrates how we are slaves to authority and generally don’t act in a way we want when ordered to do something under the guise of a duty. In more recent times, remembering the conclusions of Milgram’s experiment can explain how atrocities as unthinkable as torture of prisoners of war have happened or even how genocide was allowed to occur during World War II.
The people committing such atrocities are always villainized, and yet they may not have been inherently evil. Instead, Milgram showed us another explanation as to why people can act in appalling manners while still remaining very human at heart. It can serve as a general lesson on why people who are capable or who have done dark things aren’t different from you or me.
Milgram began his research at Yale University in the 1960s with the initial impetus of studying the psychology of genocide. He began to theorize that people weren’t necessarily evil, twisted, or even different from those who didn’t commit genocide but that it was rather a reflection of authority, orders, and the perception of a lack of accountability. In other words, if you were just being told what to do and you were conditioned to follow orders without question, there was a pretty good chance you were going to be able to do anything.
After all, that is the reason soldiers go through boot camp and are berated endlessly by drill instructors—it is a process designed to promote obedience and conformity, even in the worst conditions that combat will present.
However, Milgram’s experiment showed it wasn’t only trained soldiers who could fall victim to such blind obedience and have their free will taken away from them. Milgram built a “shock machine” that looked like a device that would be used to dole out torture, but in reality, it did nothing and was mostly a series of lights and dials. This would be his tool for exposing human nature.
His experiment worked on the premise that the participant was administering a memory test to someone in another room, and if the unseen person made a mistake on the test, the participant was given the instruction from a man in a lab coat to punish them with electric shocks stemming from the “shock machine.” The shocks would escalate in intensity based on how many wrong answers were given. Before the start of the experiment, the participant was given a 45-volt electric shock that was attached to the shock machine. Forty-five volts was where the shocks would begin and then increase in 15-volt increments with each mistake. The shock machine maxed out at 450 volts, which also had a warning label reading “Danger: Severe Shock” next to it, and the final two switches were also labeled “XXX.”
The unseen test-taker was actually an actor who followed a script of getting the vast majority of the questions incorrect. As the participant administered shocks, goaded on and encouraged by the man in the white lab coat, the actor would cry out loudly and begin to express pain and anguish, begging them to stop and then eventually falling completely silent.
Despite this, pushed on by the man in the white lab coat, a full 62% of participants administered the electrical shocks up to the highest level, which included the “XXX” and “Danger” levels. Milgram only allowed the man in the white lab coat to encourage with neutral and relatively benign statements such as “Please continue” and “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
The participants weren’t coerced to, in their perception, shock someone to unconsciousness or death! Sixty-two percent reached the 450-volt limit, and none of the subjects stopped before reaching 300 volts. At 315 volts, the unseen actors went silent. The participants weren’t being forced to do this, neither were they being yelled at or threatened. How could these results have occurred?
Are people just callous and have little regard for human life and suffering outside of their own? That can’t be true. What’s more likely to be true is how persuasive the perception of authority can be in subverting our free will. We will act against our wishes if we sense that we are being ordered to by someone who has power over us, no matter how arbitrary.
This obedience to authority and sense of deference can even push us to electrocute an innocent person to implied death. Suddenly, things such as genocide, the Holocaust, and torturing prisoners of war didn’t seem so far-fetched. We like to think we have hard limits on what we could inflict on others, but the results of Milgram’s experiments showed otherwise—our free will was completely bypassed because of a simple display of authority.
Milgram noted other factors might include the feeling that because there was an authority figure, they would hold no accountability and be able to say, “Well, he told me to!” When the participants were reminded they held responsibility for their actions, almost none of them wanted to continue participating in the experiment, and many even refused to continue if the man in the white lab coat didn’t take explicit responsibility. Additionally, it was an unseen victim they had never met before, so there was a degree of separation and dehumanization that allowed actions to go further.
In the end, a normal person was shown to have followed orders given by another ordinary person in a white lab coat with a semblance of authority, which culminated in killing another person. It was quite the discovery in terms of what drives and motivates people. It was a very powerful piece of evidence that our free will is subject to all manners of delusion and influence. The Stanford Prison Experiment The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted on the campus of Stanford University by prominent psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1973, and he wanted to examine a few hypotheses.
Similar to the Milgram Shock Experiments, Zimbardo wanted to test how the presence of roles of authority would drive people to do things drastically out of their nature and into an area some might call sadistic and horrible. He specifically wanted to investigate whether the brutality that was being reported in prisons throughout the nation was because the prisons had a tendency to attract sadistic people or because of the artificial environment they were placed in containing an inherent power differential. Whatever the case, it was clear that something was happening in those environments to the detriment of the prisoners. Zimbardo found participants and randomly assigned them the role of prisoner or prison guard in a simulated jail complex built on the university campus. He theorized that if they all acted in nonaggressive ways, then abuse was happening in prison institutions because of the inherent bad actors and biased population—not because of the toxic environment. If the participants acted the same as guards and prisoners did in real prisons, that would be an argument for the corrupting influence of the prison environment itself.
Both groups of participants were told to adhere to their roles as closely as possible, though it quickly became clear the guards did this far more zealously than the prisoners. The guards wore sunglasses to avoid making eye contact, they punished prisoners who misbehaved by assigning them to solitary confinement cells, and they only referred to prisoners by their identification numbers instead of their names. In addition, the prisoners were stripped naked, showered in front of each other, and only given prison clothes. This was as close to prison environment as was possible.
This next part was critical: the guards were given free rein to do whatever they felt was necessary to maintain a functional prison cell, maintain order, and maintain respect from the prisoners. There was no physical violence allowed, but there were certainly many other ways bad behavior began to leak out. For instance, the guards would awaken the prisoners at 2:30 in the morning just because they wanted to show control and dominance. Forced push-ups until collapse were not uncommon as a form of punishment and general breaking of the spirit.
The guards embraced their roles, which caused the prisoners to embrace theirs. They began to act exactly like prisoners act in real prisons by ganging up against other prisoners, trying to curry favor with the guards, and taking the rules very seriously. One prisoner went on a hunger strike to try to gain better treatment for the prisoners, but his cohorts didn’t rally behind him; rather, they viewed him as a troublemaker who was going to cause them problems if he didn’t stop. They dehumanized the prisoners to an extent that cruelty became completely justifiable and acceptable.
Very quickly, the treatment of the prisoners by the guards became worse and spiraled into near-abuse. Toilet facilities became a privilege instead of a basic human right, with access to the bathroom being frequently denied, and the inmates often had to clean the facilities with their bare hands. Prisoners were stripped naked and subjected to sexual humiliation.
These were normal people put into roles with a huge power differential. Despite how good many of the guards felt they were, the majority didn’t object to this treatment of the prisoners, and Zimbardo estimated one- third of the guards began to spiral into extremely sadistic behavior and thought patterns. Free will be damned—people began to play the roles they were assigned. People may not be inherently evil or sadistic, but when put into powerful positions over people that are sufficiently dehumanized, they tend to act in predictable ways.
The Stanford Prison Experiment was slated to run for days, but Zimbardo felt it had to end by the sixth day. The behavior was growing out of control. People began to identify with their roles in horrifying and negative ways. The guards took the modicum of power they had and expanded it as much as possible while the prisoners became more dejected over time. Although prison guards in a vacuum may be as sensitive and courteous as the rest of us, the roles they inhabit take a toll on how they view others.
The guards egged each other on, and their behavior kept degrading because of a mob mentality. Zimbardo had neatly answered his question of whether it was situational or personal factors that contributed to the abuse rampant in the country’s prison systems. When people are put into specific roles, they will live up to that role, plain and simple. It doesn’t necessarily matter what someone’s normal temperament is. People’s free will is again undermined or pushed to the side in order to fulfill the duties of a role, to blend in, and to meet others’ expectations.
These three experiments—Asch, Milgram, and Zimbardo—prove the simple fact that who we think we are doesn’t matter. What matters more in determining how we will act are our surroundings, contacts, and a unique set of pressures that come with each context. Our typical definition of free will is one that allows us to dictate the path we force through life. Unfortunately, these three experiments show you what we want to do and what our will is don’t match up so frequently.
We are making conscious choices, but they aren’t the ideal choices we want to make— and that’s a lack of free will.
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Brain Blunders: Uncover Everyday Illusions and Fallacies, Defeat Your Flawed Thinking Habits, And Think Smarter (Or Just Less Stupidly) By Peter Hollins
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit https://www.PeteHollins.com to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.
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