In 1961, Stanley Milgram conducted a social experiment at Yale University that would earn him a reputation as one of the great 20th Century Social Psychologists.
But such an accolade didn’t come without its controversy. Milgram’s experiment was so ethically dubious that it saw him suspended from the American Psychological Association for a year.
His work helped disprove the ‘Germans Are Evil’ hypothesis. But in its stead, we are left with the haunting question of whether we could, ourselves, commit murder.
Why Did Milgram’s Participants Commit Murder?
Outlined in this video are five factors which may influence the results of Milgram’s study.
Five Factors that Led to Murder
1) People are socially conditioned to conform and obey.
2) People accept instruction from an authority figure who they perceive to be more knowledgeable than themselves.
3) People will display attitudes and behaviours which support causes they believe in (in this case, scientific research) – even if they wouldn’t condone the specific behaviour in another context.
4) People separate themselves from responsibility for their actions by assuming an ‘agentic state’.
5) Volunteer Bias – Milgram’s results might not be representative of the wider population because all of his participants volunteered to take part. Maybe the results are only reflective of a certain type of person.
6) Cognitive Dissonance – Not all of Milgram’s participants committed ‘murder’, but all of them ‘tortured’ their learner. The participants who stopped short of murder may have experience cognitive dissonance, which led to their refusal to continue the experiment.
There are many ethical and methodological limitations of Milgram’s initial obedience experiment (some of which have been addressed in follow up studies and reviews), but it is important to acknowledge that within the scenario created at Yale in 1961, 65% of participants would have committed murder if the shock generator had been plugged in.