Tag Archives: Psychology

The Milgram experiment and human cruelty

This Veritas was wriiten on Wednesday, May 20, 2009


In today’s VERITAS we shall study two social psychology experiments. When I first read about these experiments I was pretty shocked and amazed at the same time. These experiments show us how easy it is for people to be cruel and break boundaries of their own ethical structures.

In 1961 Stanley Milgram devised an experiment to answer the question: “could it be that the people who engaged in torturing others during the holocaust were just following orders”. He wanted to know if orders from an authority figure could override one’s own moral standards. Can ordinary people leading normal lives become agents of cruelty if they are directed to do acts of cruelty by an authority?

So let’s look at the Milgram experiment: there are three players: an experimenter, a teacher and a learner. The teacher does not know that the experimenter and the learner are just role playing. He thinks that this is a serious experiment and that the learner is a subject of the experiment. But actually only the teacher is the subject and is unaware of the full details of the experiment. The learner sits in one room and the teacher and the experimenter sit together in another room. The teacher can hear the learner and the learner can hear the teacher. The teacher is told that he will ask the learner several questions related to a subject. If the learner answers wrong then the teacher will give an electric shock to the learner. The teacher is told that the electric shocks will increase by 15 V everytime the shock switch is pressed. So the teacher thinks that he will give shocks of an increasing severity for every wrong answer. The teacher is told that he can give a maximum of 450 V shock 4 times and after that the experiment will be stopped. The role of the experimenter was to prod the teacher to continue the experiment and not stop.

So the teacher would ask a question and if the answer is wrong will give a shock. The learner sitting in another room will scream in pain and the teacher will ask the next question. If the teacher seemed reluctant to continue the experimenter will encourage him to go ahead and even tell him that he ( the teacher) will not be held responsible for the pain or even the death of the learner. The teacher will go ahead with the questions and give increasing amounts of electric shock. The learner will cry louder and even bang the wall to stop the experiment. The teachers were not told that they could stop the experiment but in reality if a teacher really wanted to stop the experiment even after receiving repeated requests and orders by the experimenter, it would be stopped. The teachers thought that they were giving real shocks and the cries of pain from the other room were real but in reality there was no shocks and the cries of pain were enacted. The role of the experimenter was to keep pushing the teacher to ask questions and give shocks.

Now, it may seem to us that very few subjects(“teachers”) would give the maximum shock. We seem to think that most teachers will stop after a few shocks because their hearts will melt on hearing the painful cries of the learners. But this was not what Milgram actually observed. He did the first experiment with 40 different subjects(“teachers”).  You would be surprised to know that 26 of them actually gave 450 V of electric shock to the learners. But we must note that some of these 26 were reluctant to go to this level but they went on and on after being encouraged or ordered by the experimenter. Only one of the 40 teachers stopped and absolutely refused to go on with the shocks before the 300 V level! Note that all these subjects(“teachers”) were regular people like us.

Milgram has tried this experiment several times and has always got similar results. There are several ways of explaining this experiment: some scientists think that in situations in which we have little expertise or power we tend to follow the leader or authority even if it means letting go of our beliefs or even morals. Some other scientists think that this experiment contains the essence of obedience: people carry out the wishes of an authority as mere instruments and do not consider themselves morally responsible for their actions.

Milgram has done several variations of the experiment and found the following:

1) Women fare no better than men and are equally likely to give maximum shocks but they tend to feel more stressed while doing it.

2) If the experimenter( the authority that tells the teacher to go on) is remote and speaks to the teacher  through a telephone the compliance decreases. But 21 % teachers still gave the maximum shock.

3) If the teacher could also see another teacher do the experiment and comply fully then the percentage of compliance increased to nearly 90%. So if we see someone else do something we seem to be less reluctant to do it even if it goes against our morals.

In my opinion this is a very powerful experiment. It shows us the limits of our morals in such a direct and unclothed fashion that it shocks us. It seems that being social creatures our compliance to authority is stronger than our conscience. This explains why armies consisting of people just like us seem so willing to rape, plunder and murder when told to do so by their leaders. We may be individuals in what we feel but when it comes to action we seem to follow the leader or the crowd.

You should also read about the Stanford prison experiment. This is another role playing experiment that will make you very uneasy. It shows how when some people are told that they are policemen and others told that they are prisoners will after some days actually start acting like their roles. The policemen actually became cruel and the prisoners actually became depressed even though everyone knew that this is just a game. It shows how power can make people use it in the most cruel fashion and others to accept it and become victims.




Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time and regulate the Sun;

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Animal Art


      I am currently reading a book :” The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee” . This book maps human behaviour to our animal roots .


      There is a chapter “Animal Origins of Art ” which tries to understand if Art is a uniquely human activity or do animals do it too .


      There is a bird called bower bird found in parts of Australia and New Guenia . The Males of this species makes elaborate structures to impress females . These structures( called bowers ) are large size huts

8 feet in diameter and 4 feet high with a door large enough for a child to enter . Outside this hut is a lawn of green moss with hundreds of natural objects of various colors to make the hut look beautiful .

These objects are of various colors and objects of each color are stacked nearby to make a pattern . The female of this species selects the male with the most impressive bower !!!



      Also apes in captivity can get quite interested in art .

A group of apes became really interested in painting . SO much that artists who evaluated their work thought that the paintings were by some very good “human” artist . Then some psychologists were given these paintings and asked to judge the personalities of each painter .

None of the psychologists could make out that the paintings were by chimps . They thought that all were human children . But they guessed the sex of each painter correctly !!!!



      wow . isnt it . Great book . A must read