Stanley Milgram wanted to know how easily morally normal people could be induced to commit heinous crimes under orders.
In April 1961, former SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann went on trial for crimes against humanity in an Israeli courtroom.
Throughout his trial, which ended with a conviction and death sentence, Eichmann had tried to defend himself on the grounds he was “only following orders.” Over and over, he asserted that he was not a “responsible actor,” but a servant of those who were, and so he should be held morally blameless for just doing his duty and organizing the logistics of shipping people to the Nazi camps during the war.
This defense didn’t work in court and he was convicted on all counts. However, the idea of an unwilling-but-obedient participant in mass murder captured the interest of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, who wanted to know how easily morally normal people could be induced to commit heinous crimes under orders.
To examine the matter, Milgram polled dozens of people for their opinions. Without exception, every group he asked for predictions thought it would be difficult to get people to commit serious crimes just by ordering them to.
Only three percent of the Yale students Milgram polled said they thought an average person would willingly kill a stranger just because they were told to. A poll of colleagues on the staff of a medical school was similar, with only around four percent of faculty psychologists guessing test subjects would knowingly kill a person on the experimenter’s say-so.
In July 1961, Milgram set out to discover the truth for himself by devising an experiment, the results of which are still controversial.
The Milgram Experiment Setup
The experiment Milgram set up required three people to make it work. One person, the test subject, would be told he was participating in a memorization experiment, and that his role would be to administer a series of electric shocks to a stranger whenever he failed to correctly answer a question.
In front of the subject was a long board with 30 switches labeled with increasing voltage levels, up to 450 volts. The last three had high-voltage warnings pasted on them.
The second participant was actually a confederate, who would briefly chat with the test subject before moving to an adjacent room and connecting a tape recorder to the electrical switches to play recorded shouts and screams as the shocks were delivered.
The third participant was a man in a white lab coat, who sat behind the test subject and pretended to administer the test to the confederate in the next room.