The Milgram Experiment

What does it mean when we say something is “human nature”?  I love these broad questions – are we basically good (thanks Locke) or evil (shout out Hobbes)?  Do we have the capacity for altruism?  Who are we at our worst moments?  Stanley Milgram, a social scientist in the 60’s, pushed the limits of experimentation about one area of human nature – our obedient responses to authority.  Milgram was filled with questions that sprouted initially from Nazis in WWII.  How could a baker or college professor become a guard at a Nazi death camp? Didn’t they feel a sense of responsibility?  Why didn’t they stand up?  His research came up with one answer, an answer that also comments about our nature.

Activities:

  1. Prior knowledge – ask students to write or talk in pairs about the response to the following, “Think about a time that you did something you that you were uncomfortable about because a person you perceived as an authority told you to. Describe the situation, the people involved, and the outcome. What happened? Who was the authority? Why? Why were you uncomfortable?”  Help students share responses and tell them they will learn about an experiment that probes how humans react to the authority.
  2. Depending on your access – either read the NYTimes article or watch one of the video’s below (each is about 8 minutes) that reviews the Milgram experiment. (Ideally – watch the video in advisory and discuss and use the short article for homework).
  3. Encourage students to take notes on the basics:
    1. Who are the participants?
    2. Which of these people are actors?
    3. What is the machine that the “teacher” is using?
    4. What is the experiment testing?
    5. What “Pressures” were put on the teacher when they began to feel uncomfortable? (list quotes if you can).
    6. What are the results of the experiment?
    7. What do you think from these events?
  4. Discuss the Milgram Experiment and the dark side of authority and obedience (and shedding responsibility).
  5. Why do you think they use roles like “teacher”, “experimenter”, and “student” instead of names?  What do you think this means?
  6. Does authority have to be a “guy in a white coat”.  What are other ways we might think about authority? How have you seen people respond to this?

Resources:

  1. The original 1960’s experiment (10 Min Video) (You can fast forward to get the basics).
  2. The a recreation of the experiment
  3. NY Times Article “Decades Later I would Pull the Switch”
    1. Related Discussion Questions
  4. Wikipedia Overview of the Experiment

Update: (3.28): Well you might have heard the ruckus all the way from France, but a live French TV show (“The Game of Death”) just used the basis of the Milgram experiment for a reality show.  They asked members of the audience to flip switches to pulse electricity through a man who needed to be “punished” until the actor (though no one knew this) appeared dead.  This has started a hot debate – are humans programed to listen to “experts” and act out on others or do they understand the artifice of the tv context and they are playing out fantasies because they must know it can’t be real?

Extensions:

  • This experiment has obvious relations to the behavior of Nazis in World War II.  Many asked, how could a whole country, usually common working people become part of a discriminatory murder machine?  Consider reviewing Facing History and Ourselves materials on Obedience and Conformity specifically in the context of the Holocaust.
  • As a reflection from this experiment – assuming this is true, what safeguards do we need to put in place to make sure that people don’t shed their responsibility and act (in some cases) barbarically?

Enciendalo!

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