The Milgram Obedience Studies, conducted from 1960 through 1974 by Stanley Milgram, found some chilling answers questioning the limits of social pressure.
In the study, a naïve research subject entered a laboratory-like room and was told that an experiment on learning was going to be conducted. The subject was to act as a teacher and present a series of test questions to another person, the learner. Whenever the learner gave an incorrect answer, the teacher was told to administer an electric shock. For each successive incorrect answer, the teacher was to increase the intensity of the electric shock by 15 volts. The machine was labeled clearly for the teacher with the indications of: slight shock, moderate shock, strong shock, very strong shock, intense shock, extreme intense shock, danger: severe shock, and XXX, which contained 450 volts of electricity.
What the teacher did not know was that the experiment was rigged. The learner was in on the experiment and no shocks were actually administered. The machine made sounds as if it was really administering electric shocks and the learner responded to the shocks with squirming, groans, and screams, although he or she really felt no pain. If the teacher tried to quit, the researcher conducting the experiment responded with a series of responses: “Please continue,” “The experiment requires that you continue,” “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” “You have no other choice. You must go on.”
The true purpose of the experiment was to see if any of the “teachers” would go all the way to 450 volts. In fact, in the first experiment, 65 percent of the teachers went all the way to 450 volts on the shock machine.
Milgram then conducted a series of additional experiments in which he varied the conditions to find out what would cause subjects not to go all the way to 450 volts. He moved the experiment from a laboratory setting to a basement; he instructed the learners to complain of a heart condition; and he conducted the experiment with all women (the first experiment was done using only men). The results were exactly the same. Class background, racial and ethnic background, and gender made no difference.
Before carrying out the study, Milgram asked a variety of psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers what they expected the result to be. They all agreed that only one-tenth of one percent (one in one thousand) would actually go all the way to 450 volts. In fact, most people who are asked what they would do respond by saying that they would refuse to continue with the experiment. The importance of this experiment is that it highlights the difference between what people think they would do and what people would actually do. The social pressure of the researcher telling the teacher that they must go on plays a huge role in the teacher continuing to increase the voltage. It shows that the impact of social pressure is indeed very large.
Andersen, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.