March 17th, 2010
08:07 PM ET

A modern twist to Milgrim's shocking experiment

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/03/17/television.watching.jpg]


Would you shock someone with potentially lethal amounts of electricity simply because you were told to do it? That's exactly what the subjects in Stanley Milgrim's experiments did in the early 1960s. His objective was to test obedience to authority, and the world was surprised to see the results. A majority of ordinary citizens in the test chose to shock an innocent person when they were ordered to by the scientist leading the experiment. The individuals on the receiving end of the powerful shocks were actually actors pretending to suffer, but the subjects believed they were causing the actors real pain throughout the study.

Now, a French documentary has put a modern twist to Milgrim's original work. The film, called "The Game of Death," features players in a fake television game shocking fellow contestants if they answer a question incorrectly. The audience cheers them on, and the actors pretending to be zapped put on a good show. The documentary explores television's impact on morality. Tonight, Randi Kaye digs deeper on the psychology behind the experiments. Tune in at 10pm ET.

Here are some interesting facts about the creator of the original experiment, Stanley Milgrim. What do you think of his work and the new television-based interpretation?

Little known facts

Although Milgram was to become one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century, he never took a single psychology course as an undergraduate at Queens College, where he obtained his BA in Political Science. He changed career goals in his senior year and applied to the Ph.D. program in Social Psychology at Harvard's Department of Social Relations. Rejected at first because he did not have any background in psychology, he was accepted provisionally after he took six psychology courses at three different New York-area schools in the summer of 1954.

In the fall of 1962, a year before the appearance of his first journal article on his obedience research, the American Psychological Association (APA) put Milgram's membership application "on hold" because of questions raised about the ethics of that research. After an investigation by the APA produced a favorable result, they admitted him.

The first published criticism of his obedience experiments appeared in an unusual place. In the fall of 1963, right after the first appearance of his research in a journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an editorial criticizing him and Yale for the highly stressful experience he created for his subjects. Milgram found out about the editorial from a St. Louis social psychologist, Robert Buckhout. As a result, Milgram was able to write a rebuttal that the newspaper subsequently published on its editorial page.

In August, 1976, CBS presented a prime-time dramatization of the obedience experiments and the events surrounding them, titled "The Tenth Level." William Shatner had the starring role as Stephen Hunter, the Milgram-like scientist. Milgram served as a consultant for the film. While it contains a lot of fictional elements, it powerfully conveyed enough of the essence of the true story for its writer, George Bellak, to receive Honorable Mention in the American Psychological Association's media awards for 1977.

Milgram's "shock machine" still exists. It can be found at the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron. For a number of years, beginning in 1992, it was part of a traveling psychology exhibit created by the American Psychological Association.


soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Laura

    The swaying effects of the TV factor plus a live audience in "Game of Death" are no longer special circumstances. Sadly, horribly, I remember the cheers of students watching a girl in Richmond being brutalized for 2 1/2 hours at a dance. Is it possible to halt the mob mentality?

    March 18, 2010 at 4:28 am |
  2. james

    the flipside of this experience is that it directly relates to every society and and leaders power,like a us soldier in war is trained to do what his leader tells him weather it goes against his own personal principal's ,like murder,or suicide.but thats justified as war and it's ok! wow and we call ourself civilized..........lab rat2010!

    March 18, 2010 at 2:52 am |
  3. Windy

    Yes, Anderson.....for example, if you take a harder look at the James Arthur Ray case, which you have covered on your own show, you'll see that's how he gets his followers, by using a similar parallel technique which works the same way, but without the electricity.....that's exactly why people paid all that $$$ to walk into that sweat lodge....they couldn't say 'NO'....and his list of followers is growing everyday since he's got out of the AZ County Jail due to the same techniques......he is brilliant in mind-control techniques. This happens every day....the same thing is used when others get people to walk on hot coals...they're not doing it for fun – they can't say 'NO'. Interesting – but dangerous – concept.

    March 18, 2010 at 1:22 am |
  4. Betty Anne

    It amazes me that more people haven't heard of the Milgram Experiment (and thus recognize variants of it when it's presented to them). This is a failure in education as much as any kind of "failure" of society. We're conditioned by society to not question pretty much anything – authority, group/mob mentality, hype, media – but a higher level of education teaches us to question *everything* and make informed, compassionate decisions.

    Or, at least, that's the education those of us who are criticized for attending liberal arts colleges and universities receive.

    March 17, 2010 at 11:52 pm |
  5. RCW

    This is more than just conditioning. As a social creature we are hard wired to want to follow the leader, and the group. It takes alot more effort, and thought to go against the group, no matter are background and training. Milgram's experiment shows that under the right conditions even well educated, thoughtful people, will follow orders, even when they go against everything they beleave and have been taught.

    March 17, 2010 at 11:19 pm |
  6. Natalie

    Pick up "Obedience to Authority" on Amazon–Stanley Milgram's experiments and interpretation of the results in his own words. It's a must-read for anyone who's interested in this very depressing aspect of human nature.

    March 17, 2010 at 11:02 pm |
  7. julie jaffee nagel, Ph.D.

    This TV show does not show the contestants interviewed after they learn the " victim" was a fake and did not receive shock. In the Milgrim experiment, the person who gave the shock under the sway of "authority "(i.e., authority=Yale Univ., experiment, science) was severely traumatized and had to somehow cope with what he/she had done that was contrary to his/her self-beliefs. The implications of this trauma cannot be overlooked or easily debriefed. There are many ramifications from this experiment, ostensibly the suggestible, aggressive, and harmful instincts of kind, gentle people – illustrating the underside of human nature we all would prefer not to acknowledge. But the consequences of feeling coerced and acting in contrast to one's principles has implications for advertising, parenting, governing, teaching, and any other relationship where inequality and authority can be abused.

    March 17, 2010 at 11:01 pm |
  8. Kevin

    I find it disgusting that people would use the statement “just following orders" or” I did not want to ruin the entertainment value of the show" as an excuse to cause unnecessary discomfort to other living beings. This idea of entertainment is very reminiscent of an ancient roman era, and although this show was just an experiment, it certainly goes to show that society has a long way to go with respect to how we treat others and what we find entertaining. This is not just a problem or a fault of the contestants as I have to wonder what the audience was thinking as they sat there and allowed this to happen.

    March 17, 2010 at 10:56 pm |
  9. Sharon Girulat

    This is exactly what happened in the 'wall street' and related housing collapses. You had the young turks being enamored by the bright lights, money, etc of 'wall street' pushing investments on unsuspecting clients, more and more and more...without realizing or caring how much they were hurting them. And, they didn't know better and were doing what they were told. That's why, allowing the GS, AIG, etc to continue business is so destructive; the corruption will just reinvent itself to these same 'unthinking' folks to push something else. Until we stop it....

    March 17, 2010 at 10:52 pm |
  10. Hidden Meadow

    Very interesting. I just read a short story, available on Kindle, written by Robert Williams, called "The Experiment", which was published several years ago, that is about this very thing. It's from his collection called "Strange Times" which is a very apt title. He's got some other stories that at first sound like ordinary science fiction but then twists them to fit into societal frames. Could I play this game? In my heart I hear a resounding NO but like the character is this story, I wonder could I be forced to do so? It's happened so often in human history and we later generations always blame them as being weak and self centered, but human nature never really changes.

    March 17, 2010 at 10:16 pm |
  11. Annie Kate

    I have never understood why "following orders" is not looked upon as a credible or adequate defense in military cases. We are conditioned to believe that our leader knows best; that any order from our leader has to be obeyed and quickly for the survival of the group; and that while we may have the right to object to the order on moral grounds, etc, who exactly is going to do that in the heat of the moment or even in a placid group meeting? If discipline breaks down because of the questioning then how does the unit function as a group in the military; in civilian life questioning can lead to job termination which no one wants to happen. This experiment just proves that our conditioning to obey the leaders orders without question or qualms is working – so "just following orders" seems to be a valid defense....or is it?

    March 17, 2010 at 8:57 pm |
  12. rungster

    There is rumor that a Dover (NH) high school student was subject to an electrical shock last week as a result of egging on by other students. The electrocution put him in cardiac arrest, teacher performed CPR, he was flown to a Boston hospital, and fortunately recovered.

    March 17, 2010 at 8:50 pm |