The Stanley Milgram experiment was a social science experiment conducted in the 1960s and replicated many times since then. It asks the question "how far will you go to inflict pain on someone if told to by an authority figure?" The results were startling. What is it about human nature that drives to the wrong side of the moral compass? This experiment may help explain it.
You might be asking what a social science experiment is doing in a collection with all of these important historical events. In fact, this collection is not just about history but rather it's about human nature. It's not just about what people did in our history, but why they did it.
The original Milgram experiments began in 1961 at Yale University. Subjects were recruited and paid to participate in an experiment they thought was a memory experiment. Subjects were brought in and assigned to play either the role of a teacher or a learner. What the subjects didn't know was they would always be assigned to be the teacher, and the learner was actually an actor. The teacher would administer a memory test, and whenever the learner got an answer wrong, the teacher would administer an electric shock. With each incorrect answer, the voltage of the shock would be increased. The learner was in another room, but the subject could hear them as they shouted in pain as the voltage of the shock increased. The experimenter was in the room with the subject, and if the subject objected the experimenter was to give 4 prompts to encourage the subject to go on -
Prod 1: Please continue or Please go on.
Prod 2: The experiment requires that you continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice, you must go on.
The results were surprising and shocking. I won't bore you with the specifics except to say that more than 50% of the subjects continued to the end to give shocks of the maximum voltage, even when the subject could hear the person screaming in pain. The maximum voltage was 450 volts. If that's not a lethal shock, it's enough to cause serious injury. And it was made clear to the subjects that the people they thought they were shocking had a heart condition. Those 4 simple prompts were enough to make the subjects obey, even though it was clearly against their better judgment.
The Milgram experiment has been replicated many times, always with similar results. Subjects are uncomfortable with administering shocks but they still do it.
This experiment came under a great deal of criticism. Detractors claimed it was ethically wrong to put people under such strain where they have to choose to either hurt someone or disobey an authority figure.
The original experiments were an attempt to understand human nature but also an attempt to understand Nazi Germany. Milgram's first experiments occurred right after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the most notorious Nazis who performed the most heinous crimes against the Jews. Were the Nazis some special class of evil people who were the only ones capable of inflicting such torture on other human beings? Or were they just following orders, the same orders that you and I would have followed. Eichmann's defense, along with that of the other Nazis who were tried after the war was just that - we did what we were told.
Right or wrong, the Milgram experiments are a lynchpin today in social science research and are studied in just about every intro to psychology course today.