The Milgram Experiment


Prof. Dietrich Fischer – TRANSCEND Media Service

Prof. Dietrich Fischer

Prof. Dietrich Fischer

In 1961, Stanley Milgram (1933-1984), a doctoral student at Yale University in New Haven, the United States, advertised for volunteers to participate in a psychological experiment. Those who applied were paid $5 (a good amount at that time) and told that they had been randomly chosen to play the role of a teacher, and another volunteer had been chosen to play the role of a student.

The “student” was led away into a cabin where he was presumably hooked to electric wires. The “teacher” was told to ask him a series of questions, and each time he gave a wrong answer, to administer to the “student” an electric shock of increasing intensity, to study if the fear of pain would improve people’s concentration and ability to think straight.

The “student” was in fact a “confederate”, who cooperated with Milgram and only pretended to receive electric shocks, but that was not known to the “teachers.”

The “teachers” had in front of them a scale with voltage levels ranging from 15, 30, 45 volts up to 450 volts. The ranges were labeled with “mild discomfort,” “moderate pain,” “severe pain,” “danger” and finally simply “???” At 90 volts, the student began to moan in pain. At 150 volts he began to scream aloud and to protest that he wanted to quit the experiment. At 180 volts, he called that he could not stand the pain anymore and pounded with his fist on the wall. At 300 volts the “student” refused to answer any more questions and begged to be allowed to leave. After that, there was silence.

Each time the “student” made a mistake, the teacher was told to increase the voltage. Some asked, “Do I really have to?” and the leader of the experiment simply told them, “Yes, you have no choice.” When he described this experiment to 14 of his colleagues, all of them predicted that no more than 2 percent of the subjects would go “all the way.”

Yet 26 of 40 volunteers, or 65 percent, went all the way, and all of them administered shocks of at least 300 volts. The experiment was repeated in many countries.

In Germany, up to 85 percent administered potentially lethal shocks. If people follow blindly the orders of an unscrupulous dictator, this can lead to war and genocide. This experiment should encourage us all to think independently, to uphold our values, and to accept personal responsibility for our actions–not to hide behind the excuse of simply having carried out orders from above.


Dietrich Fischer (1941-2015) from Münsingen, Switzerland, got a Licentiate in Mathematics from the University of Bern 1968 and his Ph.D. in Computer Science from New York University 1976. 1986-88 he was a MacArthur Fellow in International Peace and Security at Princeton University. He has taught mathematics, computer science, economics and peace studies at various universities and been a consultant to the United Nations.

Excerpted from Dietrich Fischer’s Stories to Inspire You – TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Nov 2015.

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