We know there are alt-right followers 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 Third Reich members 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 and would never happen today, the Milgram experiment's ethics are troubling. 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The experiment that showed Americans were like followers of Hitler cannot be written off as outdated science — it has been replicated multiple times in the past decade with the same disturbing results.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 one of them? The Milgram experiment says yes.
The design of the Milgram experiment was relatively simple. The volunteer, called “the teacher” and labeled T in the diagram to the right, 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. But the results were very different from what Milgram expected.
How many people were willing to give out extreme and even deadly shocks to a stranger? Before the test began, Milgram gave an estimate as to 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, and 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 20 times before refusing to stop. And even more horrifying, 65% of participants continued up to 450 volts.
In his 1974 book based partially on his experiments, Milgram made the implications for his research obvious. He noted how individuals who submit themselves to dictatorial authority find themselves in a "profound slumber" and compares this to the "light doze" of his student volunteers. Both Third Reichers and the experimented students had entered an "agentic state" wherein they could do inhumane things while feeling nearly completely guiltless about their actions.
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 [perished] in a gas chamber some 20 years later."
With the Third Reich 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 disturbing for Milgram himself. And his results showed that even in America, a huge percentage of people would "just follow orders."
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 fell silent.