The Milgram Experiment

Sometime in the summer of 1963 in a small town somewhere in New England, a young man named John stepped into an empty room to find a tall dark middle aged man in a white lab coat holding a clipboard. The man introduced himself as Dr. Milgram, momentarily stepped out and came back with a chair, a single sheet of paper, and a little box with a dial on it. John was told that we would be participating in a revolutionary new method of teaching that could lead to a golden age in American education. His job was to learn how to apply the method properly to see if it could be replicated across all American schools. 1

Dr. Milgram proceeded to attach two electrodes to the John’s chest, turned the dial on the little box to “50V” and pushed a red button on the box. He felt an immediate, slightly painful, shock. Dr. Milgram then called in another young man who would be the student. John’s job was to teach this student every pair of words on this list. He would read one out, then the student would respond. If the student did not respond correctly, he would turn the dial up by 50V and press the red button. If the student did respond correctly, he would continue on to the next word in the list. The student then walked into the other room where he could be heard but not seen.

John felt a bit apprehensive about this whole situation but Dr. Milgram reassured him that this was safe. So he began with the first word on the list. The student from the next room answered incorrectly. John pressed the red button and the student made a sound that was barely audible. He turned the dial up 50V and proceeded to the next word on the list. The student again responded incorrectly so he pressed pressed the red button again. This time the student could clearly be heard from the next room. John pressed on. Turn up 50V and ask another word. This time the student got it right, John was relieved but that soon faded as the student from the next room cried out in pain from his incorrect answer.

At this point John knew something was wrong. He asked Dr. Milgram if we should check on the student, but Dr. Milgram assured him that the student was fine and said that: “The experiment requires that you continue.” John kept listing words and kept turning up the dials. Next 200V, then 250V. Dr. Milgram insisted that the experiment go on. “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” he said. 300V, 350V. “You have no other choice, you must go on,” pressed the doctor. Finally, he got to the last word which was incorrectly answered and 450V was applied. The student in the other room cried out in agony and quietly wept afterwards. Dr. Milgram thanked him for his time and showed him the way out.

For years after that incident John would be able to hear the cries of pain coming from that poor student. What had he done? How could he have inflicted so much pain on another person? Why did he listen to Dr. Milgram? Why did he do those terrible things?  Those were questions that alluded him for the rest of his days. 2

  1. [1] Although the story is fictional, this experiment was actually performed to see the effect that authority can have on an individual. Of course in the actual experiments, the subject (John) was told afterwards that the “student” was not actually being shocked but just pretending to be shocked. []
  2. [2] This story is a great example of authority and how it can influence us. I was originally going to write about how it’s dangerous to blindly follow heroes but then I started writing the above and it turned out pretty well. My original idea was that since I highly respect Warren Buffett, it’s important not to blindly follow whatever he says. The important point is to think. Always. One great way to get around that is to find opposing opinions by intelligent folks on whatever subject you might get blinded by and I was going to refer to a recent post by Professor Damodarn titled “The Buffett Plan: An apt name for a sanctimonious, hypocritical and superficial proposal.” I still might write something on this so look out. []