Obedient Human Mind

In the psychology examination, Mira’s friend, who was sitting behind her, whispered to her that her question number 2 was incorrect. Though she was quite sure of her answer she managed to ask some other girls around her about the question. They all said that she was incorrect, the answer was something else. In spite of her being sure about her answer, she wrote what her friends wrote. Getting out of the examination hall, she found out that the answer was wrong; in fact, she was right at first.

Why do we comply with something only because others are doing so or someone important told us to do so? Especially, when we know that the thing is wrong to do? To find out the reason, social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment, which is known as one of the most famous series of experiments in psychology (McLeod).

Stanley Milgram

Often, we decide something to do or to say even if our subconscious mind says it’s erroneous. Mostly, we do that when we are in a group or when someone influential tells us to do so. When we obey just to be in a group, it is called conformity. According to Saul McLeod, “Conformity is a type of social influence involving a change in belief or behavior in order to fit in with a group. This change is in response to real (involving the physical presence of others) or imagined (involving the pressure of social norms / expectations) group pressure” (“Conformity”). On the other hand, when we get influenced by someone powerful and obey, it is called obedience. In Social Psychology, obedience is “a form of social influence where an individual acts in response to a direct order from another individual, who is usually an authority figure. It is assumed that without such an order the person would not have acted in this way” (McLeod). During the World War II, armed forces and as well as general people were also compelled to do dreadful activities towards each other. The brutality of the war raised question how it is possible for human being to carry out such activities. But Milgram didn’t experiment only for the intense situation like war. His experiment was to observe if a person would agree to hurt other person only because he was told to do so by an authority (Dean).

For the experiment, Milgram formed a machine with 30 switches, which would generate shock within a range of 15 volts to 450 volts. There were also label in some group of switches. For example, 75-120 volts were labeled ‘Moderate’, 135-180 volts were ‘Strong’, 375-420 were ‘Danger: Severe Shock’, and to the highest level, 435-450 volts, it was labeled as ‘XXX’. If truth be told, the machine was not genuine. It was not creating any shock; rather it was only creating sound while pressing the switches (“Stanley Milgram Experiment”).

To conduct the experiment, 40 persons were hired via advertisement. They were offered incentives and also told that the experiment is about memory and learning. In the experiment, the hired people were told to be “teachers” who would ask questions to the “learners” who were actually helper of the experiment. There was also a person supposed to be the experimenter who directed the teachers. The teachers were ordered to increase the level of shock each time when the learners made mistakes answering the questions. Certainly, the learners were making mistakes and they were also screaming pretending to get hurt by the shock rendered by the teachers (Dean). To a certain level of shock, the learners were told to turn down answering question anymore and at a higher level like 330 volt, they would be totally quiet, if the teachers continued to that level. When the teachers were refusing to continue the experiment, the appointed experimenter would just urge the teacher saying, “The experiment requires that you go on”, “It is absolutely essential that you continue”, or “You have no other choice, you must go on” (“Stanley Milgram Experiment”).    

Though some of the teachers had disagreed to continue the experiment even if the experimenter insisted on, the result of the experiment was shocking and thought-provoking at the same time. Hearing the pain and request to stop the test of the learner, it is normal that most of the teachers would have stopped the experiment (Milgram). However, surprisingly, all of the teachers continued till the level of 300 volts, though most of them were not at ease. Above all, 25 out of the 40 teachers carried on till the utmost level of 450 volts no matter the learners screamed out of anguish, pleaded to stop, or became soundless. Only 3 of the participants “had full-blown, uncontrollable seizures” (“Stanley Milgram Experiment”). It was also found that, more obedience were seen when the authority of the experiment was available nearby, teachers believed that they would not be blamed for causing any harm to the learners, and when the experiment was held under the sponsorship of a reputed institution (Milgram).

However, during the experiment, a variety of expressions were seen among the participants. Some were asking the learners to answer carefully; some were showing to be desperate, conceited, and some were behaving in an eccentric manner. After the experiment, some were seen to be relaxed when they came to know that they had not caused harm to anyone. One of the teachers even cried to see that his learner was “alive” (Milgram). According to the different behavior of the participants, Milgram categorized them in 3 groups. People who obeyed but put the blame on someone else were in the first category. Among them, some made the experimenter responsible for the harm of the learners and some charged the learner for not being able to answer questions and being so dull. Those who blamed themselves for the pain they caused to the learners were in the second category. Lastly, those who revolted were in the third category. These participants queried the experimenters and disagreed with them about the safety of the learners more than the requirements of the experiment (Milgram).

The "Shock" Generating Machine

Why was the number of the dissenters so less? Observing the result, one might think how sadistic the participants were! But it should be kept in mind that the participants were chosen from all walks of life. They were not psychopaths; they were normal people like us. They were just helping to conduct a psychological study. It was there obedience that let them hurt others so badly. If we ask people individually whether they will punish someone like that for not answering correctly, they might claim that they would never do such thing. But the experiment clearly shows us that to what extent we can go for our obedience to an authority.

Finally, obedience in human being is so embedded that it can invalidate the way we normally behave (Milgram). In spite of this experiment’s being influential in psychology, there is an ethical concern that can be raised against it. In most of the countries now, it is impossible to hold an experiment like this because it deceives the participant somehow. In addition, the experiment is also likely to cause psychological problem to the participant (“Stanley Milgram Experiment”). Still it is remarkable as it changes the way we think of ourselves.


“Stanley Milgram Experiment – Will People Do Anything If Ordered?” The Scientific Method, Science, Research and Experiments. 2008. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://www.experiment-resources.com/stanley-milgram-experiment.html&gt;.

Dean, Jeremy. “Stanley Milgram: Obedience to Authority Or Just Conformity? — PsyBlog.” Psychology Studies Relevant to Everyday Life from PsyBlog. 21 Feb. 2007. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/02/stanley-milgram-obedience-to-authority.php&gt;.

McLeod, Saul. “Conformity in Psychology.” Simply Psychology. 2007. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://www.simplypsychology.org/conformity.html&gt;.

McLeod, Saul. “Obedience in Psychology.” Simply Psychology. 2007. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://www.simplypsychology.org/obedience.html&gt;.

Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: an Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Print.





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