In 1961 and 1962, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram performed a famous series of experiments which demonstrated that about 2 out of 3 people will perform a cruel action towards another person if instructed to do so by someone whom they regard as an authority figure. This demonstrated that most people are prone to doing something they do not want to do, even something they would normally regard as "wrong", just because they are told to do it by an assertive or authoritative person.

In the Milgram experiment, participants responding to an advertisement were asked to participate in what was described as an experiment about learning and punishment. They were told that one person would be the "teacher" and the other person would be the "learner'" and drew lots decide who would be who. In reality, the "learner" was an actor following a script and the draw was rigged so that the real participant was always "randomly" chosen to be the "teacher".

The participant "teacher" was then seated in front of a fake "electrical shock machine" which had switches labeled in 15-volt increments, from 15 to 450 volts. The "learner was seated out of sight in an adjacent room but could communicate verbally with the teacher. The teacher was given a list of word-pairs to read to the learner. Then the learner would be asked to remember the pairings and communicate his answer by the correct button out of four. The teacher was instructed to administer progressively higher levels of electrical shock each time the learner made a mistake.


Stanley Milgram's fake "Shock Machine"

Stanley Milgram's fake "Shock Machine"

The learner intentionally made mistakes to put the teacher in the position of having to administer increasing shock levels. As progressively higher "shocks" were administered, the "learner" reacted audibly by screaming, shouting for it to stop and complaining about his heart condition. At even higher levels the "learner" refused to answer then fell silent. The teacher was instructed to continue by delivering shocks if no correct answer was given within a few seconds.

As the experiments progressed, most of the participants became visibly uncomfortable and began to question the wisdom of continuing and expressing concern for the wellbeing of the "learner". Whenever this happened, the experimenter would calmly instruct the participant to continue with a series of responses such as:

  • "Please continue teacher."
  • "The shocks may be painful but they're not dangerous"
  • "The experiment requires that you continue."
  • "whether the learner likes it or not, we must go on until he learns all the word pairs."
  • "It is absolutely essential that you continue."
  • "I'm responsible for anything that happens to him."
  • "You have no other choice, you must go on."

If the participant absolutely refused, the experiment was stopped. If not, it continued until the maximum 450-volt shock had been administered 3 times.

Milgram found that 26 out of 40 participants (65%) went all the way to the highest shock level.

Milgram set up the experiment as a way of investigating why extreme acts of cruelty were committed by so many people during World War II and hypothesized that people will obediently do things they would otherwise consider wrong if they feel that they will not be held responsible for what happens happening and if they instructed to do so by an authority figure.

Milgram's experiment is also an illustration of Learned Helplessness, where a person is influenced to relinquish their power to someone they perceive to be an authority figure.

Connection between Stanley Milgram's Experiment and Personality Disorders

Stanley Milgram's experiments illustrate what can happen when an otherwise ethical person finds themselves under the influence of an authority figure who instructs them to behave in an unethical way.

An example of this is when an abusive parent influences the other parent or siblings to join in the mistreatment of one child. The other family members may not have acted abusively without this influence, but within the family system abusive acts may become “normal” and they become "Abusers by Proxy".

Abusive parents may also recruit proxies from outside the home. Many people regard a parent as an authority figure over their children's lives and consider that the "parents know best". Using this social trust, abusive parents sometimes successfully recruit people from outside the family including teachers, doctors, pastors, counselors, friends and acquaintances to participate in the abuse of a child. A famous example of this is Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome in which a parent persuades medical staff to overmedicate or mistreat a child by claiming the child has illness or symptoms of an illness.

Another example of this is when someone in a relationship with a personality-disordered individual begins to reject people whom they would otherwise consider as friends, steal or break laws in order to please or placate the demands of their partner or spouse.

You can watch Stanley Milgram's Movie "Obedience" which documents the experiments here:

The Milgram experiment was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.