The Milgram Study and the Dangers of Blind Obedience

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What is the focus of the Milgram study? Why is the experiment so important?

The Milgram study was carried out by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram to explore the tendency of people to obey orders from authority figures even when they contradict their personal values. The experiment is important because it helps us understand why seemingly decent people will blindly follow flawed leaders to do bad things.

Read on to learn more about the discoveries of the Milgram study.

The Milgram Study

The Milgram study showed the tendency of people to obey orders from authorities despite contradicting their personal values. The setup: the subject is assigned the role of a teacher; his role is to administer shocks to a learner when the learner makes mistakes. The voltage is increased with each mistake, ending at levels that would cause serious damage or death. (In reality, no shocks were given; pre-recorded messages of pain were played at different shock levels.) If the subject demurred from giving shocks, the experimenter would step through four statements in order:

  • “Please continue.”
  • “The experiment requires that you continue.”
  • “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
  • “You have no other choice; you must go on.”

If the subject refused to comply after four statements, the experiment would end. The surprising result was that the majority of subjects (65%) of the Milgram study administered the final shock at a lethal voltage, even though they otherwise would likely describe themselves as benign people incapable of killing another person.

The standard analysis of the Milgram study focuses primarily on the authority influence tendency, but Munger finds this analysis incomplete. A more thorough analysis, stepping through a checklist of every major cognitive bias, would find multiple biases at work and thus explain the Milgram study as a lollapalooza:

  • Authority influence: A respectable person in a lab coat tells you to do things.
  • Reason respect: “The experiment requires that you continue” justifies the shocking as part of research
  • Social proof: The bystanders in the lab aren’t interrupting, so it’s probably OK. “If I really were killing someone, surely someone would stop me.”
  • Contrast misreaction: Each gradual step up of 15V is far easier to handle than administering a fist shock at the lethal dose of 450V.
  • Stress influence: The testing environment is stressful and confusing—you’re surprised that you’re hurting someone, an authority figure is telling you to continue, and your internal conflicts are causing stress. This can lower inhibition to executing orders.
  • Inconsistency avoidance: Once a participant takes the first few steps, he builds inertia that makes stopping more difficult. Internally, the participants see themselves as people who contribute to meaningful scientific experiments, and if they were to leave, it would jeopardize the research 
  • Excessive self-regard: “I’m not the type of person to just blindly obey authority, so my behavior is probably justified, and this is probably OK to do.”
  • Disliking/hating tendency: “This person has done something wrong, and I’m punishing him, so he’s probably unlikeable to begin with.”
The Milgram Study and the Dangers of Blind Obedience

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  • A collection of Charlie Munger’s best advice given over 30 years
  • Why you need to know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at to make decisions
  • Descriptions of the 25 psychological biases that distort how you see the world

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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