In some situations, people will go to the extreme in order to be obedient. In 1961, psychologist Dr. Stanley Milgram studied whether people would still be obedient if that obedience meant harming others.
The basis for this study was Dr. Milgram’s curiosity about Nazi war criminals and their capabilities for carrying out heinous holocaust-related acts. Dr. Milgram set up an experiment that paired “learners” and “teachers” and instructed the teacher to shock a student with electricity each time they answered a question incorrectly. In reality, there was no shock being administered, but the “teacher” was unaware of this fact. The teacher heard the student in pain, but the sounds were acted. Some of the participants wanted to stop right away once they heard the noises, but researchers encouraged them to continue. Even though they seemed very stressed, over half of the participants gave the shock, even as it increased in intensity.
Over the years, the study has been questioned. The study was once thought to demonstrate the peril of following authority without questioning. However, the Scientific American Journal argued that the study is more indicative of the existence of conflict between obedience to authority and adhering to personal ethics on empathy. Journalist Michael Shermer stated that “human moral nature includes a propensity to be empathetic, kind and good to our fellow kin and group members, plus an inclination to be xenophobic, cruel and evil to tribal others.” Shermer strongly suggests that “the shock experiments reveal not blind obedience but conflicting moral tendencies that lie deep within.”
Further, experts now find fault with Dr. Milgram’s methods. The initial reporting of the study’s findings did not include records that indicate that possibly over half of participants were disobedient and declined to give the electric shock, as claimed by current reviewers.
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