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Should Milgram's experiments on obedience even have been conducted?

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Introduction

Should Milgram's experiments on obedience even have been conducted? Consider the ethics of the experiments, the contribution of Milgram's findings to our scientific knowledge about social behaviour, and the relevance of the study to contemporary life in Britain today. Obedience is a type of social influence whereby somebody acts in response to a direct order from another person. In the past, obedience to authority has resulted in the mass slaughter of millions of innocent people as seen in World War II, and many other atrocities since then. This begs the question of what causes people to obey such orders. In a series of studies between 1960 and 1963, Stanley Milgram attempted to explain this aspect of human behaviour. Milgram's original experiment in 1960 involved 40 male participants who had been recruited through newspaper advertisements. The participants were told the study was an investigation into the effects of punishment on learning and memory, and were paid $4.50 for volunteering. The study took place in a laboratory in the prestigious Yale University in the USA. On arrival, the experimenter introduced two 'participants' to each other and they drew lots to determine who would be the 'teacher' and who would be the 'learner'. ...read more.

Middle

When the learner could not be seen by the teacher and heard no complaints, nearly all obeyed calmly to the end. However, when the learner was placed in the same room as the teacher, obedience levels dropped to 40 per cent. Also, when the teacher had to force the learner's hand onto the plate to receive the shock, only 30 per cent continued to 450 volts. This has consequences for the real world - we are now living in an age in which we are able to kill from great distances due to the development of technology and nuclear warfare. In combat with an enemy they can see, many soldiers will not aim or fire. However, this disobedience is rarely seen among those ordered to kill by means of the more distant aircraft weapons. A third factor to be considered is that of gradual commitment - the experiment started off with fairly trivial shocks, but once they had committed themselves to shocking they found it difficult to decide when to stop as each voltage increment was fairly small. This is known as the 'foot-in-the-door effect' and can be explained by the desire of people to appear consistent. Real-world relevance can also be seen here, in the return of the use of torture. ...read more.

Conclusion

Once children have been taught to ask questions rather than learn items by rote, then the seeds of future disobedience have been sown. Teachers and governments now have to convince an increasingly sceptical audience that obedience is necessary - and they have to produce reasons for this and accept that disobedience cannot be rectified by simply invoking superior social status and authority. To conclude, although much controversy has come out of Milgram's experiments, it has resulted in some very important findings - no one predicted that the level of obedience demonstrated by the participants would be so high. Many people would expect those participants who went all the way to the 450-volt shock level to be cruel, aggressive people, but repeated experiments in many different cultures and on many different people have all yielded similar results. These results have forced us to ask questions about what it is that caused the observed obedience, with analyses of these being of great importance in explaining and understanding the 'crimes of obedience' that have persisted in modern times. Studies such as Milgram's demonstrate that even 'ordinary' people are capable of cruelty in certain situations, and can be pressured to go against their own conscience. Therefore although such a study would never be allowed to take place today due to ethical considerations, I believe the findings of Milgram's study have been of great significance and it was rightfully conducted. ...read more.

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