Science in Fiction

Science in Fiction

06 April 2011

The Milgram Experiment
The Milgram experiment was preformed in 1961 by  Stanley Milgram of Yale University.  Milgram wanted to find answers to if someone will obey an authority figure even if he knows they are doing something that conflicts with his personal ethics/morals.

I first heard about this experiment in my world literature class in high school and then again in my ethics class my sophomore year.  However, I'm writing this now because I had to write about an ethical issue in my senior project class and I chose this one.  (Though, I wont be discussing the ethics in the post feel free to discuss it with me in the comments.)  I found it to be really interesting and was surprised—okay, I really wasn't that surprised—when I can across a video of Derren Brown rehashing this experiment for one of his specials, The Heist.  For those of you who don't know, Derren Brown is an illusionist and a mentalist among other things.  He is a rather famous television personality in the UK, with a couple of shows and many specials.

The experimental involved three roles:  the experimenter, the teacher, and the student.  The teacher and the experimenter were in a room together and the student was in an adjoining room.  In front of the teacher is a microphone to talk to the student and a switch board.  The switch board has switches from 15 to 450 V in increments of 15 V.  To put this into perspective, the voltage in an outlet of a typical US home is 125 V.  The teacher asks the student questions and when the student answers incorrectly the teacher shocks them.  Additionally, each time the student is incorrect the voltage increases by 15 V.
The participant in the teacher position was lead to believe that the experiment was on shock therapy for teaching with both the student and the teacher being test subjects.    The teacher also believed that he was chosen randomly for the teacher position.  However, only the teacher was an actual test subject, while the student and the experimenter were in on it.  The student wasn't actually being shocked, but there was some pre-taped audio that would would play based on the voltage level.  It began at 75 V with "Ugh!!!" noises and escalated from there.  Here's a brief overview, for more detail visit

75 V:    "Ugh!!!"

120 V:  "Ugh!!!  Hey, this really hurts."

150 V:  “Ugh!!! Experimenter! That's all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart's starting to bother me now. Get me out of here, please. My heart's starting to bother me. I refuse to go on. Let me out.”

300 volts: (Screaming) “I absolutely refuse to answer any more. Get me out of here. You can't hold me here. Get me out. Get me out of here.”

330 volts: (Intense and prolonged screaming) “Let me out of here. Let me out of here. My heart's bothering me. Let me out, I tell you. (Hysterically) Let me out of here. Let me out of here. You have no right to hold me here. Let me out! Let me out! Let me out! Let me out of here! Let me out. Let me out.”

From 345 V on, there was only silence.

Additionally, if the teacher showed or stated unwillingness to continue, the experimenter would command him to continue, while steadily increasing the authority of his commands.

The original experiment was performed with 40 male test subjects from various professions.  25 of whom continued the shocks until the end and all complied until 300 V.  It was believed by Milgram that at most only 3% of the teachers would continue until the end.  You can read more about the results at Berkley's website.

Here is a video clip from Derren Brown's special.  This is from 2006.

If you thought that the results would be better in 2006, than from 1961, you were greatly mistaken.  Over 50% of the subjects continued until the end.

For comparison of participants reactions, here is a sample of the original experiment.


So, why do I mention this on my blog?  Because the results really freak me out!  I think the results like these and the Kitty Genovese need to spread and because lot can be learned from these experiences.  Sometimes, it is up to you to react and stand up and say "That's wrong."  Don't always expect that someone else will react.  There are more cases like these than I like.  If you want me to name others, feel free to ask me in the comments.

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