Milgram experiment – What would you do?

Would you harm an innocent stranger because someone told you to? Are you weak minded, or resolute in the face of adversity? Do you have a strong sense of self? What are your principles, what do you stand for?

One of the most valuable lessons for anyone to be taught is how and when to say no. Even to authority figures. It’s not easy to stand up against an influential speaker, economic, political, or social pressures. It takes courage, resolve and integrity of character. It takes strong will. There’s a reason why “know thyself” has been championed by the greatest of philosophers for well over 2,000 years.

How does evil happen when most people are good? Why do horrible things happen while the peaceful majority are irrelevant? “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” -- Edmund Burke. An abundance of strong and independent minds, ready access to quality education, combined with good arms and good laws is what’s necessary for a maintainable just society.

How does a weak mind relate to evil? An example can be found in the Milgram experiment which began in 1961. Psychologist Stanley Milgram performed social psychological experiments to measure obedience to an authority figure. Unsuspecting subjects were hired to do a job they thought was to assist in the study of memory. The job was to punish someone for not correctly answering questions. In the experiment, there were three roles, the experimenter, the teacher and the learner. The job was to be a teacher (this is the subject of the experiment; the other two roles are cohorts in on the real study). The experimenter tells the teacher what to do and wears a lab coat.


The teacher has a panel of electric shock switches that are to be used when the learner gives the wrong answer or doesn’t answer at all. In the original experiments, the learner who would receive the shocks was not visible. The learner was in a separate room with an audio connection. In later experiments the learner was visible and sometimes the teacher was required to force the learners arm down in order to receive a shock upon a wrong answer.

The results of this experiment were extremely disturbing. On the good side, there were test subjects who when told to apply the electric shock after hearing distress from the learner crossed their arms and refused. “You can keep your money, I’m not going to do this.” This is an example of someone who is strong. And then there was the test subject who kept applying the shocks up the scale even when the learner started to complain of chest pains and then eventually didn’t respond at all.

The man giving the shocks was reluctant, but when the experimenter offered to take full responsibility, the man acting as the teacher continued administering the punishment. At the end of the initial experiment, 26 out of 40 experiment participants applied the maximum voltage of 450-volts. The voltage shocks were not real, but the participants had no way of knowing this.

So how would you have done in this experiment? Would you go all the way up the scale, or would you have refused early on to apply an electric shock to another human being? Everyday people are pressured into doing things they know are wrong, and that they might regret for the rest of their lives.

Be strong.

-James Kirk Wall

References: Psychology, The Milgram Obedience Experiment

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