ABC News conducted a mock test to see if ordinary people would be willing to inflict pain on other people. Researchers found that if an “authority figure” tells them that the infliction of pain is “necessary,” the folks will usually go along and obey the commands.
In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram asked those same questions. That was the year Nazi Adolf Eichmann, on trial for his war crimes, denied responsibility for his actions by saying he was simply doing what his superiors told him to do.
Contemplating this rationalization, Milgram came up with a famous and controversial experiment to examine what happens when ordinary people are faced with morally questionable orders. What he learned shocked not only him but the entire world.
In the experiment, conducted at Yale University over a period of months in 1961, an authority figure — “the experimenter” — dressed in a white lab coat and instructed participants to administer what they believed were increasingly painful electric shocks to another person.
Although no one was actually receiving shocks, the participants heard a man screaming in pain and protest, eventually pleading to be released from the experiment. When the subjects questioned the experimenter about what was happening, they were told they must continue.
And continue they did: Two-thirds of Milgram’s participants delivered shocks as they heard cries of pain, signs of heart trouble, and then finally — and most frightening — nothing at all.
The response to the experiment was enormous, and in 1975, strict guidelines about regarding psychological experiments on humans shelved any further potential replications. Since then, scientists have been stymied in efforts to replicate Milgram’s study.
“Primetime” wanted to know if ordinary people today would still follow orders, even if they believed their actions were causing someone else pain. Would as many follow the seemingly dangerous and painful orders as in the original experiment?
In ABC News’ version of the Milgram experiment, we tested 18 men, and found that 65 percent of them agreed to administer increasingly painful electric shocks when ordered by an authority figure.
Read the whole thing. A very disturbing “cultural indicator.”