The Milgram Electric Shock Experiment – Is Evil Innate, Learnt, Or Created By Group Dynamic Behavior

Perhaps one of the most horrific things I have seen to date in my life are the pictures which circulated recently of a captured pilot in a cage being burned to death in the cage by his captors, while his death was filmed by them and then displayed on public internet viewing sites. I read in the newspapers this week of a teenage boy who died after a long period in hospital after being attacked and beaten by a group of older boys on his way home from school. I read also that a film came out in the cinemas recently about a sniper who was famous for killing several hundred individuals in the ideological group who his country opposed. My emotional response to these images was to hope and pray that similar fates to those described above never came the way of my loved ones and children, and that they manage, like I have to date, to stay out of harm’s way or such situations as these horrendous ones described above. My academic response was to wonder what were the underlying causes of such evil acts, and I spent a bit of time this week reading up again on the famous Milgram electric shock experiments, which potentially shed some light on how individuals that live on the same planet as I do, breath the same air that I do, and see the same sun each day that I do, can have done such things to other individuals probably at the same time as I walked my dogs, spent quality time with my family, and worried about how I was going to solve the latest management issues that need attention at work.

The Milgram electric shock experiments were performed in the 1960’s at Yale University by Professor Stanley Milgram. His graduate dissertation work examined conformity in decision making. Being affected by the violent events of world war two which still resonated in his (and others) mind at that point in time (and still do), he extended his dissertation work to examine whether evil acts such as torture, murder, and genocide could be related to conformity / obedience to the system that ordered it, or whether it was related to psychopathic tendencies in those that performed them. In his experiments he asked volunteers to give electric shocks of increasing intensity to people sitting in an adjacent room who were trying to learn a task but were making errors in the task, in order to punish them each time they made an error and in this way attempt to enhance their task performance. Of course the people who were being shocked were actors, and they did not receive shocks, but they did scream each time they were ‘shocked’ and begged for mercy / not to be shocked, and these screams could be audibly heard by the volunteers who were giving the shocks to the ‘actors’ under instruction of the laboratory scientists.

The astonishing finding of Milgram’s study was that nearly two-thirds of the volunteers did not refuse to give the shocks when hearing the screams of the ‘actors’, and did not stop participating in the experiment, but continued increasing the voltage on the demand of the laboratory scientists until they had reached what they was told was the maximum voltage output of the shock-giving device. Milgram expected that the maximal number of subjects that would do this if psychopathy was the cause (ie individuals with a personality disorder that predisposed them to perform evil acts without any empathy or conscience for the victims), to be around / a maximum of 10 percent of the volunteers as per the putative societal prevalence of psychopathy. The much greater number of volunteers who he found were happy to continue shocking the actors suggested that ‘normal’ folk could do something evil like this if they were told to do so and in an environment where they thought they were doing the right thing – in this case presumably given that they were part of a scientific experiment and were told to perform the shocks by the scientists in control of the study, they may have felt it to be ‘right’ to do so. The study was repeated with the ‘actors’ in the same room, and again with the volunteers required to actively hold down the ‘actors’ hands on the shock device, and while the number of volunteers who continued the experiments was reduced in these follow up trials, still approximately 30 percent of the volunteers continued giving the shocks to maximum levels despite the ‘actors’ screaming in pain and begging them to stop. Despite several concerns being raised about the study since it was published all those years ago, mostly about the conclusions Milgram reached about his findings, it has been repeated a number of times over the decades since and had the same outcome described for it wherever it has been performed. Milgram concluded that the capacity for evil was innate in all people, and that similar evil actions which caused such anger during world war two could be performed in a created environment where people were instructed to perform evil acts by any individual from any American town. Sadly for Stanley Milgram, apparently this conclusion was too controversial to be accepted by his University and the broader American community, and he was denied tenure by Yale, and had to move on to complete what was a successful career at another University, despite producing one of the most robust study findings ever.

So what does this fascinating study tell us about the terrible acts of evil that I used as examples above. Perhaps there is a higher than the mean incidence of psychopaths in those people who become snipers, or who prey as a group on weaker individuals, or who burn someone to death in a public forum. More likely from Milgram’s findings is that the people involved in performing such evil acts believe they are doing ‘right’ due to the idea, as Milgram suggested, that they are being obedient to the group they belong to, and perceive they are doing ‘right’ due to an affirmatory belief generated by being part of the group itself. This latter hypothesis is troubling in itself, but does allow one also to believe that if the group dynamics of those committing evil acts are altered, or can be externally influenced to change, there is a hope that such evil behaviour can be attenuated. An example is that of war and killing – during war it is perceived to be ‘acceptable’ that soldiers kill in the course of performing their duties, and they are protected if doing so by international law. Fortunately, most soldiers when they return to their non-war home environments understand that to continue killing would not be societally or legally acceptable, and most soldiers returning to their non-combat environments change their ‘killing paradigm’ accordingly. The problem of course is how to change those whose living environment is continuously abnormal, and those who are so brutalized by their environments that such a change to a ‘good’ rather than evil state cannot occur.

What is not often discussed, associated with the Milgram study, is of course that one-third of the volunteers who participated in the experiment chose to stop giving the shocks, despite the encouragement of the scientists to continue doing so, and understanding that they were part of a bone fide experiment and therefore ‘evil’ actions were ‘acceptable’ because these acts were part of the experimental conditions. There is hope for us therefore that a reasonable percentage of folk, when confronted by situations where they have to make choices, even when in a group environment where the pressure to conform and be obedient to the ‘rules’ of the group is high, will choose to negate the pressure to perform evil acts, and maintain their moral courage. The lesson to all of us from the Milgram experiments therefore is to perhaps be aware that group dynamics may cause us to perform acts of evil and condone them in our minds as being acceptable given that they are ‘group’ practice and therefore can or should be done. Each day, while most of us are not confronted with such terrible situations as where folks are burned alive or beaten to death, we come face to face with actions, whether in the workplace or social environments, where such evidence of ‘group evil behaviour’ occur, such as when fun is made of people that look or talk differently, or when an individual holds a different viewpoint to that of the group one works in or socializes with, amongst numerous other examples. In our own way, we have the choice to submit to and join in the group’s evil behaviour, or maintain our own moral courage, and the danger of course, is that each time one does not maintain one’s moral courage, and joins the group’s behaviour, eventually there is the potential that an environment will be created where we will consider it acceptable to burn someone alive, and to film it while it is being done. So we need to be individually aware of the danger of group behaviour, and be brave, always, and understand bravery is not just about saying yes in difficult situations, but often is also about saying no, and turning away from those around one. As much as we want to all be an accepted member of a ‘group’, at times we need to be an ‘outsider’ to the group if the group one is attached to chooses to perform acts which are evil, even if it means being ostracized for one’s standpoint, for the greater good. Society ultimately perhaps depends on enough folk doing so, though of course the percentages of folk happy to shock other people in Milgram’s famous experiments will always be deeply concerning, and make me worry each night whether my loved ones will stay safe as they ‘walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ / go along their own life’s journey, which has the potential to be either enjoyable or terrible, depending on which group one associates with, or bumps into on a random day when walking home from school, or when one’s plane crashes in the wrong place.


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Deputy Dean (Research), Faculty of Science and Health, University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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