How Evil Are You?

How Evil Are You?

A Look at the Milgram Experiment

Landis facial experiment

In 1924 Carney Landis, a psychology student, wanted to find out if humans have default expressions for various sensations: joy, fear, anger etc. He took a bunch of volunteers and asked them to perform certain tasks to track their facial movements. The coup de grace was creating genuine shock – he did it by asking his volunteers to decapitate a live rat. If someone refused, Landis did it in order to get a reaction. Surprisingly, two thirds of his volunteers ended up decapitating the rats, even though most of them didn’t want to. Just because a person of authority, as minimal as it was (he was just a psych student, after all), told them to. Also, if you’re wondering why there are pictures of a child, it’s because he wandered into Landis’ office and somehow became involved in the experiment.

This implication went largely unnoticed back then. The tester concentrated on the initial goal of the experiment instead of shifting focus on something much more interesting. After all, this is something that many of us ask ourselves – can we truly be capable of committing an evil act?

The Milgram Experiment

It wasn’t until the 1960s that someone would go on to test that idea. Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram organized a now-famous experiment to test the idea of “obedience” and just how far people are willing to go when prodded correctly. He was inspired by Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials who justified their actions by claiming they were only following orders.

Here’s the setup: two volunteers would take part in the experiment at the same time. They were recruited via newspaper ads, thinking they would take part in a memory study. One of the participants would be the “learner” while the other one was the “teacher”. In reality, the learner was one of Milgram’s associates. He was taken into a separate room while the teacher stayed behind with the experimenter who played the authority role. As far as the teacher was aware, he would be asking the learner questions and administering a shock whenever he got it wrong. The intensity of the shock increased with every wrong answer – it started at a mild 15V and went all the way up to 450V which was marked as deadly (XXX).


The learner would get the answers wrong on purpose. Afterwards, he would pretend to be shocked to see how far the teacher was willing to go. Whenever the teacher started protesting or was having second thoughts, the experimenter would use one of four verbal prods:

  1. “Please continue.”
  2. “The experiment requires that you continue.”
  3. “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
  4. “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

The Results

Before he made the results public, Milgram polled several dozen psychiatrists and psychologists to see how many they thought would go all the way. They said around 3%. The actual number of people who (at least thought) administered a lethal voltage to another person – 65%. Additionally, all of the teachers went over the 300V mark, a dose which was labeled as “Severe Danger”. It should also be mentioned that many of the participants expressed concerns, even anger at the experimenter during the test but, given enough prods, they eventually continued until the end.

The results of the experiment were shocking (no pun intended) but have also garnered criticism over the years. For starters, other professionals took issue with Milgram’s participants. They were all males from the same area and, because they answered a newspaper ad, shared a “volunteer personality”. This meant that the results were not necessarily representative of the American population. Furthermore, Professor James Waller provided several arguments why the Milgram experiment cannot be equated to the Nazi genocide. Additionally, newer research suggests that the results had been interpreted incorrectly all along.



Featured image courtesy of AndHereWeGo via Wiki Commons.