The Milgram Experiment: Does Obedience Trump an Individual's Values?
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The Milgram Experiment: Does Obedience Trump an Individual's Values?

Kristen McCurry explores the dissonance between obedience and personal values, as published in the famous Milgram experiment of the 1960s. When an authority figure tells a person to violate his ethical code, more likely than not that person will do so--even if it means hurting someone else.

The Milgram experiment (Obedience to Authority Study) is a renowned psychological experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University. His results were published in an article entitled "Behavioral Study of Obedience," published in the "Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology" in 1963. In later years, he discussed at book length in his 1974 Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. This experiment was designed to measure the willingness of a participant to obey an authority figure who instructs the participant to do something that conflicts with the participant's personal values or conscience.

The experiments began in July 1961, a year after the trial of notorious Nazi, Adolf Eichmann. Milgram devised the experiment to answer the question "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" (Milgram, 1974)

The experiment was simple: place the participant in a room with an electrocution device. Have a "figure of authority" stand over the participant and tell the participant to deliver a series of electric shocks to a "victim" in another room. Although there were no real victims, just actors screaming louder and louder as the electrical shocks got higher and higher, the majority of the participants continued to push the button because they were doing what they were told. Many participants clearly struggled with these decisions, some crying and protesting, but these participants generally continued shocking the victim until the "death" level on the machine. They did this because the authority figure told them that the victim had done something terrible and deserved this type of treatment.

Milgram summed up in the article "The Perils of Obedience" (Milgram 1974), writing:

"...I set up a simple experiment to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the[participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."

The Milgram experiment begs the question about how solid people really are when it comes to their moral compasses. The answer, unfortunately, is that most of the time a person's values fall to the wayside when a perceived authority figure gives a order.

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