Milgram Revisited

Decades Later, Still Asking: Would I Pull That Switch?

When I was in high school a friend and I used to volunteer to be in experiments conducted by professors and grad students at the UCLA psychology deparment. These were generally quick and easy ways to earn $5 and in a few hours we had enough money for a fun weekend.

On one occassion we went into the basement of the psych building, following directions from an advertisement and found a note on the lab door “come in and sit down, the experimenter will be back in 5 minutes.” We went in and sat down and a few minutes later another subject came in and sat down to wait.

Then the experimenter came in (white coat) and introduced himself, then had us draw straws to see who’d be the odd man out of three. The other guy lost and so he was taken behind a curtain and the experimenter told us he was strapping him into a chair and hooking electrodes up to his arms.

He came out and sat us down at a box with buttons. He told us that pushing button #1 would produce a very mild electric shock to the other person, #5 would be pretty intense, and #10 would be excruciating, would really hurt him.

We were then given task: to teach the other person something by giving him shocks, mild to severe depending on how far off he was.

To this day I’m not quite sure I understood what our task was but in the end it really didn’t matter. Soon after starting we had given him a #5 shock and heard him yell. We looked at each other and weren’t sure what to do. Then his learning turned south and we ended up giving him a #10 and he yelled bloody murder. Scared both of us so badly that we got up and left without collecting our money.

Neither of us ever did an experiment for money again. Ever.

Many years later I found myself in psychology 101 at the University of Oregon and the professor was talking about the now famous Milgram experiment. I kid you not, I listened and could not believe the fact that my friend and I, all those years ago, had been the real subjects of the experiment, the purpose of which was to demonstrate just how far people would go if an authority figure told them it was okay. Much had been written about this but of course I’d never read any of it.

I sat there in shock, listening to the fact that over 90% of people who took part in this experiment (and it’s many replications) gave the subject a #10 shock. Of course, no matter what the professor in psych 101 said, virtually everyone in the audience except me was sure that they would never have done this.

The scary part of this true story is this: if a similar situation came upon me today, in different guise, I’m not absolutely sure I wouldn’t do the same thing. I’d like to think I’ve learned from that experience but I’m not absolutely sure.

Scary stuff.

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