Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Study: Could Science Explain The Holocaust?

Dr Stanley Milgram

IN 1961, Yale University’s Stanley Milgram, a Jew, tested how compliant humanity was. Could any of us have been a Nazi? Could we have killed and tortured on command?  Milgram wondered is we could all be Adolf Eichmann, the mass murderer? He asked: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?”

Eichmann’s ordinariness inspired Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil”.

An advert was placed for willing ‘Nazis’:




Volunteers were assigned roles. The volunteer would always be the “teacher”. His subject was the “confederate”. The ‘fed’ had to learn words by association. When asked, he had to answer correctly. If he answered wrong, the teacher pressed a button and administered an electric shock.The learner was not in view. The teachers could only hear them. They could hear the howls of pain. As the test continued, the voltage increased. Would the leaner become better at leaning? No. That was not the point of the experiment. This was a test in obedience.




A man – The Controller – named Williams was there to cajole them. He was told to say this:

Please continue.

The experiment requires that you continue.

It is absolutely essential that you continue.

You have no other choice, you must go on.

You. Must. Obey. Orders.

And they did. Of the 40 participants, 26 obeyed instructions, pressing the button until the level Danger: Severe Shock was reached. Some pressed the final switches. They were marked  “XXX” – 450 volts. Press that and the learner went quiet. They stopped responding. Were the teachers killers? Were they evil?

Could science explain the Holocaust?

Gina Perry recounts in her book Behind the Shock Machine:

“The common perception is that they were all slavishly obedient — that they entered a zombie-like state of compliance. When you listen to the recordings you can hear people bargaining. They’re concerned, they’re worried, they’re distressed. You can hear them emphasising the right answer, wanting to get the learner to pick up the right answer…

“Only half of the people who undertook the experiment fully believed it was real and, of those, two thirds disobeyed the experimenter.”

And Williams often urged them on with more words, departing from the script. Were these bullied men Eichmanns? No. But they were able to be controlled.

Said Milgram:

“I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and confident. Within 20 minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck, who was rapidly approaching a point of nervous collapse… At one point he pushed his fist into his forehead and muttered: “Oh God, let’s stop it.” And yet he continued to respond to every word of the experimenter, and obeyed to the end.”

Who is responsible? Where does blame lie?

And anyone shocked at the evil men do needs to get out more.

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