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What conclusion did Stanley Milgram reach on his obedience study that he conducted?

Stanley Milgram reached the conclusion that people would obey instructions from those who they saw as legitimate authority figures, even if the instructions they received were to do something to harm another person. From this, Milgram concluded that people were socialized to follow immoral or unlawful orders.

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Stanley Milgram's infamous experiments were conducted in the early 1970s in an effort to make sense of what many people had done during World War II. He was especially interested in evaluating the "following orders" argument made by the defendants at the Nuremberg trials after the war. He set up an experiment where participants were ordered to give a series of progressively more intense electric shocks to other participants who made mistakes in a word-pairing activity Milgram had devised. Of course, the "shocks" were not real, but the participants had no way of knowing, particularly since the recipients of the "shocks," hidden from view, screamed and acted as if they were in pain. What Milgram found was that people were willing to follow these obviously immoral instructions as long as they thought the person giving them was in a legitimate position of authority. Almost two-thirds of the participants administered the highest possible level of shock (or at least thought they did) with varying degrees of prodding by Milgram and his team.

In subsequent variations of the experiment, he found that a number of variables influenced the behavior of the participants, most having to do with the perceived expertise and authority of the person giving the instructions. What was especially chilling about these results was that the people involved believed that their actions could potentially kill the person who was supposedly making the mistake. As Milgram wrote in an article he published on the experiment, "The Perils of Obedience," this was contrary to the predictions of a cohort of people, including clinical psychiatrists and laypeople, who he surveyed beforehand. One conclusion that Milgram mentions in the article is that, as he writes, I must conclude that "[Hannah] Arendt's conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine." Arendt had written about the willingness of ordinary Germans like Adolf Eichmann to carry out horrific acts because they believed them to be their duty.

In a conclusion with chilling parallels to Arendt's memorable notion of the "banality of evil," Milgram wrote that his subjects shocked their victims "out of a sense of obligationan impression of his duties as a subjectand not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies." People engaged in behaviors that they believed were endangering the lives of other people because they wanted to do a good job and impress the authority figures. For Milgram, when people were faced with a job, no matter how horrific, something in the inherent sociability of the human psyche made them want to do it, as long as they were able to shift the responsibility for it to an authority figure, i.e., as long as they could say they were "just obeying orders."

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Stanley Milgram concluded that a majority of individuals will continue to obey authority figures even if the individuals believe the acts to be wrong or harmful to another person. The Milgram experiment's results showed that 65% of individuals administered the final electric shock even after the "learner" had expressed significant distress followed by continuing silence. However, the famous version of the Milgram experiment was not the sole variation which was tested.

Milgram's recognized method included a "teacher" and authority figure in one room with a "learner" in an adjoining room such that the "teacher" and "learner" could not see each other. Milgram, in his book Obedience to Authority, also included discussions of different variations. One placed the "teacher" and "learner" in the same room but maintained the same set up otherwise. This allowed the "teacher" to administer shocks through a remote means, though the distress of the "learner" was now visual instead of just auditory. A final variation removed the remote shocking mechanism and required the "teacher" to physically deliver the shock to the "learner." In both of these close proximity variations, obedience to authority dropped significantly.

There are also critiques of Milgram's experiments that allege that some results may have been manipulated. At least one participant in the experiment has publicly noted that he believed the set up of the experiment to be false and others have theorized that others may have deduced that the harm being done by the experiment was false. There is still a good deal of debate over the validity of the Milgram results.

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Milgram concluded from his famous experiment that people would go against what they thought was morally right so that they could obey authority figures. Milgram wrote the following about his study:

The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation (see the source below).

All of the participants in the study applied some electric shocks to other individuals (although these shocks were not real, the participants did not know that) when asked to do so by an authority figure—the scientists running the study. Many participants even applied the highest possible level of shocks. Milgram concluded that participants in the study entered what he called an "agentic state" (see the source below) in which they delegated their own sense of what was right to others; the people running the study seemed to represent legitimate sources of authority. The participants abdicated their own sense of responsibility to the authority figures.

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What Stanley Milgram concluded based on his famous study of obedience is that people will do whatever they are told as long as they believe that whoever is telling them what to do has the right to order them.  They will obey orders from what they think is legitimate authority even if they are ordered to do terrible things.

Milgram reached this conclusion because of how many of his test subjects were willing to continue to press the button even when they thought that, by doing so, they were hurting another person.  The study found that 65% of the subjects were willing to continue to "shock" the person at the highest possible level.  The subjects did this even though they sometimes felt that it was wrong.

Because of this, Milgram concluded that people in general (or at least members of his test group) are all too likely to follow immoral orders as long as they think the people ordering them are legitimate authority figures.

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