Milgram wanted to understand how many officers under the Nazi regime could follow brutal orders from authorities without showing resistance though it was evident that their obedience to such orders caused pain to others. Milgram wanted to research how far people could go into obeying orders from an authority that caused pain to others.
40 men were recruited for the lab experiment for $4.00 per hour of their time. The recruits were introduced to a shock generator developed by Milgram. The shock generator had on it switches that could generate shocks at increasing levels: starting at 30 volts and increasing in 15-volt increments all the way up to 450 volts. Labels such as "Slight Shock," "Moderate Shock" and "Danger: Severe Shock" were used over the switches. The final two switches were labeled simply with an ominous "XXX."
The experiment emulated a scene of Teacher-Learner-Experimenter situation. For each session, three individuals were selected. One of them was the recruit (who would play the role of the Teacher); the other was a confederate of the experimenter and acted as Learner; the third was the experimenter(Milgram) himself. Of course, straws were drawn to determine who would play which role, but everything was fixed beforehand in a manner that the recruit's choice could only be to play the Teacher. The experimenter made sure to inform the Teacher (recruit) that the Learner (who was, unknown to the Teacher, a confederate of the experimenter) had a heart problem. The experimenter took the Teacher to the other room and showed the Learner strapped to a chair with electrodes. Then, the Teacher was given a list of word pairs that he was to teach the Learner. The Teacher began by reading the list of word pairs to the Learner. Then, he read the first word of a pair in the list and indicated four possible answers. The Learner pressed a button to indicate his answer. If the answer was incorrect, the Teacher administered a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. If correct, the Teacher would read the next word pair. But, while the recruit (Teacher) believed that real shocks were being given, it was so arranged that no shocks were actually administered.
After a number of high level shocks, the Learner would begin to bang on the wall and plead to stop. But, while a few of the recruits called out of the experiment, most went forward to administer higher level shocks in obedience to an authoritative procedure involved. When the Teacher would question if the experiment should be carried on any further, the experimenter would just give each of the following commands in sequential order:
1. Please continue.
2. The experiment requires that you continue.
3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
If the Teacher still persisted to halt the experiment after the fourth successive order, then the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.
65% of the recruits, though showing unwillingness to do so, administered the 450-level shocks to the Learner. All the participants continued to 300 volts. "Throughout the experiment, subjects displayed varying degrees of tension and stress. Subjects were sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin, and some were even having nervous laughing fits or seizures." (Wiki) Yet, they continued to administer the shocks in obedience to authority.
Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience":
This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. Many of the people were in some sense against what they did to the learner, and many protested even while they obeyed. Some were totally convinced of the wrongness of their actions but could not bring themselves to make an open break with authority. They often derived satisfaction from their thoughts and felt that -- within themselves, at least -- they had been on the side of the angels. They tried to reduce strain by obeying the experimenter but "only slightly," encouraging the learner, touching the generator switches gingerly. When interviewed, such a subject would stress that he "asserted my humanity" by administering the briefest shock possible. Handling the conflict in this manner was easier than defiance. For a person to feel responsible for his actions, he must sense that the behavior has flowed from "the self." In the situation we have studied, subjects have precisely the opposite view of their actions -- namely, they see them as originating in the motives of some other person. Subjects in the experiment frequently said, "if it were up to me, I would not have administered shocks to the learner." The experimenter's physical presence has a marked impact on his authority -- As cited earlier, obedience dropped off sharply when orders were given by telephone. The experimenter could often induce a disobedient subject to go on by returning to the laboratory. Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but he had only to sit at a desk and shuffle papers. At the same time the man in the camp who actually dropped Cyclon-b into the gas chambers was able to justify his behavior on the ground that he was only following orders from above. Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one is confronted with the consequences of his decision to carry out the evil act. The person who assumes responsibility has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society.
Further Reading:The Perils of Obedience