Milgram experiment: The Nazis were more like us than we hoped
The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act. – Stanley Milgram, 1974
After world war two, many people wondered what kind of people did it take to preform the horrific acts of the holocaust. Some said it was a nationalistic reason and no matter what happened, it would come eventually. Some thought it was because the executioners must have been deranged or such firm believers that they would have followed any order. Stanley Milgram, Psychologist professor at Yale, thought differently on the subject. His hypothesis stated that “a substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act, and without pangs of conscience, so long they perceive that they command comes from a legitimate authority(1).”
The experiment was conducted with 40 men who were recruited via newspaper ads. Each man was paid $4.50 dollars to participate. Each man was put in a room with a box that was meant to create shocks to a person in a different room. The shocks went from 30 volts until 450 volts. The volts themselves were labeled as either slight shock, moderate shock, severe shock and the last two were simply labeled XXX. The test subject was told that he was supposed to deliver a shock to a man who gave an incorrect answer during a test. Each time the student gave a wrong answer, the shocks would go up. The man on the inside would complain about a heart condition if the shocks got high enough. Around 300 volts, the student would demand to be released and bang on the door. The silence would be taken as an incorrect answer and the man would shock the student again. While this is going on, an authority figure was there telling the man to continue. What the test subject did not know is that the man who was being shocked was just acting the whole time.
The real experiment was to see if the subject would continue the shock even if the actor would scream, complain, or demand to be released. When Milgram started the experiment, he believed that 3% of the men would pull the death switch. By the end of the experiment, 65% of the men pulled the death switch.
Many Nazi claimed they did what they did because they were following orders. Some of course had done just that. Many however did it out of a careerist or ideological perspective. But this post is no about them, this is about the everyday soldier who complied with the authority figure. I personally am not very surprised of how so many could do this after learning of the Milgram experiment. I am not saying of course that I think humans are inherently willing to kills other people, but we must look at the context of the situation. We were taught that Nazis grew up being taught to obey the authority no matter the cost. Now we have information proving that people not taught by the Nazis were willing to obey the authority no matter the cost.
A more modern study by psychologist Steven Sherman tried to study the process of Milgram. He collected a group of people and talked to people over weeks of time about a subject. He then told them to preform a task related to the subject, and two thirds refused to preform the act. His findings said people who had a greater education were more likely to follow their own conscious rather that authority(2). The Nazis on the other hand were taught not to obey teachers and to disregard teaching. This lack of education along with a robust teaching of obedience made the soldier more than likely to complete the act.
- Cherry, Kendra. “Why Was the Milgram Experiment So Controversial?” About.com Education. 2011. Accessed November 22, 2015.
- Vazquez, Manuel. “Conscience and Authority.” Conscience and Authority. 1988. Accessed November 22, 2015.