We know there are Nazis in the United States—but could anyone be convinced to inflict harm at the insistence of an authority figure? The Stanford prison experiment in 1971 showed the disturbing human capacity to abuse authority, but a decade earlier, the Milgram experiment proved that nearly anyone could be convinced to kill.
Stanley Milgram’s experiment tested the claim that Nazis were “just following orders” by asking ordinary Americans to give high-voltage shocks to a stranger. In the Milgram experiment summary, volunteers were told to increase the voltage, and a disturbing number went along. As with other awful studies on humans that could & would never happen today, the Milgram experiment's ethics are troubling. But even worse are the results. Every single person in the study was willing to give “intense shocks” to a stranger, simply at the instruction of a man in a lab coat.
The alarming experiment that showed Americans were like Nazis cannot be written off as outdated science—it has been replicated multiple times in the past decade with the same disturbing results. Could any American become a Nazi? The Milgram experiment says yes.
The Milgram Experiment Asked Volunteers To Shock A Stranger
The design of the Milgram experiment was relatively simple. The volunteer, called “the teacher” and labeled T in this diagram, would read questions to a partner, “the learner” (L). If the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher would deliver what they believed to be a shock—and with each wrong answer, the voltage of the shock increased. A man in a lab coat, known as “the experimenter” (E), would encourage the volunteer to continue if he faltered or asked to stop.
Milgram wanted to see how far people would go when ordered to inflict electrical shocks on a stranger by an authority figure. Before the experiment, experts assumed that only about 1-3% of the population would reach the maximum voltage before refusing to continue. They assumed that only a psychopath would use potentially deadly shocks. But the results were very different from what Milgram expected.
The Results Of The Experiment Were Horrifying
How many people were willing to give out extreme and even deadly shocks to a stranger? Before the test began, Milgram conducted an informal survey of senior Yale psychology majors. After reviewing the experiment, they were asked to estimate how many of the volunteers would go through the entire shock series—up to 450 volts, marked XXX on the machine. Some guessed zero. The highest guess was 3% of participants. The class mean was 1.2%.
They were wrong. Every single person in Milgram’s most famous version of the study reached 300 volts. A full 100% of participants shocked a stranger twenty times before refusing to stop. And even more horrifying, 65% of participants continued up to 450 volts.
Milligram's Study Showed That Anyone Could Become A Nazi
Milgram made the link to Nazi Germany explicit in the paper he published in 1963. “It has been reliably established that from 1933-45 millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command,” he wrote in the first paragraph of the study. “These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders.”
Milgram himself was the son of Jewish immigrant parents, born in New York City in 1933. In 1958, Milgram wrote to a friend, "I should have been born into the German-speaking Jewish community of Prague in 1922 and died in a gas chamber some 20 years later."
With the Nazis at the front of Milgram's mind, along with his own family history, the willingness of study participants to dole out excruciating pain on command must have been incredibly disturbing for Milgram himself. And his results showed that even in America, a huge percentage of people would "just follow orders."
The Strongest Shock Was Simply Labeled “XXX”
The shocks given by volunteers went all the way up to 450 volts. The language on the machine warned volunteers as the voltage increased, from “moderate shock” to “very strong shock,” to “intense shock.” As the voltage reached the highest levels, the machine warned, “Danger: Severe Shock.” The two highest voltages, 435 and 450 volts, were simply marked XXX.”
The victim of the shocks grew increasingly agitated as the experiment continued. Even before reaching 200 volts, the victim would yell that he wanted to stop. By 300 volts, he would scream, “I absolutely refuse to answer any more,” adding, “Get me out. Get me out of here.” At 330 volts, he would hysterically yell “Let me out of here. Let me out of here. You have no right to hold me here. Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!”
Above 345 volts, he ominously fell silent.