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Jewish psychologist Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted his controversial research on Obedience, horrified by the holocaust. Milgram wanted to find out the extent to which man will go to obey authority even if it meant inflicting pain on another person. His experiment was further inspired by the trial of SS official Adolf Eichmann, who excused himself saying that he was just following orders. Milgram’s “Obedience Experiment” had his subjects being administered electric shocks on command. The movie is an educational experience showcasing Milgram’s endeavors in studying questions of authority, conformity, and social pressure.
Milgram’s 1961 experiments revolutionized our understanding of human behavior specifically concerning obedience. Obedience is behavior that complies with the explicit demands of an individual in authority. His “Obedience Experiment” involved a “learner” who memorized answers to standardized tests and a “teacher” who was assigned the task of administering electric shocks. The results of the experiments were shocking with 65% of the subjects applying shocks till the very end and only 35% refusing to comply midway. The results were a disturbing and compelling look at the power of authority and obedience. Milgram believed that Nazi Germany was a result of Obedience. We experience Obedience in our everyday life; obedience to our teachers, parents, religious leaders, and law enforcement officials. Without Obedience to authority, there will be chaos and disorder in society however we have to remember that Obedience is not an obligation but a choice. Being Obedient does not tantamount to giving up our opinion and principles.
Milgram and his wife visit his mentor Dr. Solomon Asch house for tea. Milgram speaks about Asch’s famous “Conformity Experiment.” Conformity is the change in a person’s behavior to coincide more closely with a group standard. In his experiment, Asch put seven participants in a room of which six were confederates. They were shown two cards one with a single line and the other with three lines of varying length. Each of the participants had to state out loud which of the three comparison lines were identical to the target line. This experiment showed that the real participant conformed to the majority view, despite not agreeing with the answers. The reason for agreeing with the group was the fear of being ridiculed and the desire to fit in exhibiting normative influence. The other reason was the belief that the group knew better which exhibits informational influence. Asch’s experiment reveals how people will deny what they see and submit to group pressure. Conformity is experienced in our everyday life, like listening to music that your friends like even if you don’t like it. It can also lead us down the wrong path like indulging in excessive drinking, drugs, and anti-social behavior just because our friends are into it. We should not lose the ability to think and behave independently. Nonconformity is what brought about social change like the Suffragette movement and the civil rights movement.
Milgram’s research on classic human behavior is the “Lost Letter” experiment, devised to study the prejudices prevalent towards socially undesirable groups. Prejudice is a preconceived, unjustified negative attitude towards individuals solely based on an individual’s membership of a social group. Milligram is shown instructing his students to disperse 400 sealed stamped and self-addressed envelopes in public places. The letters are addressed to various entities such as medical research institutes, Mr. Walter Carnap, friends of the communists, and the Nazi party. Only a mere 25% were sent to the Nazi and communist camps. Milligram deduced from the results that, “the American public had an aversion to the Nazi’s and communists.” Taking the experiment further, a new batch of letters was dropped in Charlotte and Raleigh North Carolina. When the letters came back, they reconfirmed prejudices existing in society; pro-white letters got mailed more often in white neighborhoods and more pro-black letters got mailed from black neighborhoods. Prejudice is destructive and hurtful. We see prejudice every day, like against people of color, against women in the workplace, and even nationality. Prejudice influences the way the victims of prejudice perceive people around them and even the way they think about themselves. Those who act out their prejudices can be violent and destructive towards the victims of prejudice. Hence if this problem is not confronted both the victims and the perpetuate prejudice pay a price.
The movie mirrors some unpleasant truths of human nature. His Obedience study is the hallmark of introductory psychology courses. However, Milgram was accused of deception and being manipulative, putting the mental health of his subjects at risk. Milligrams’ experiment was pivotal in the movie and his life. The movie leaves us with the overriding question, what would you do? setting us thinking whether we would stand up to authority or comply.