In an attempt to answer such questions, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted what certainly has become one of the most famous and controversial social psychology experiments ever conducted. The Milgram obedience to authority studies were based on a series of experiments conducted in the early 1960s which measured the willingness of an individual to obey an authority figure whose directives conflicted with his or her own conscience.
To conduct his experiments, Milgram recruited participants through newspaper ads under the guise that they would be participating in a study on the effect of punishment on memory and learning. Each experiment involved three people: a experimenter, a teacher (the subject) and a learner (accomplice). The two participants drew slips of paper from a hat to determine who would be the teacher and the learner. In actuality, the drawing was rigged so that the subject would always be the teacher.
At this point the electric chair is introduced and the teacher is given a sample shock at 45 volts which adds authenticity to the experiment. The learner is then strapped into the chair and the teacher seated in an adjoining room which contains the shock generator. The shock generator was a console which had 30 levers indicating various levels of shock from 15 volts to 450 volts. The experimenter then explained to the teacher that he was to "read a series of word pairs to the learner and then read the first word of the pair along with four terms. The learner was to indicate which of the four terms had originally been paired with the first word." For each wrong answer the teacher was told to administer an incrementally increasing level of shock. Of course the experiment was rigged so that the learner, who was actually an accomplice, would not actually receive any shock and would only be acting as if he did.1
As the experiment progressed, the learner starts to act out in a rehearsed fashion; at 75 volts he begins to grunt, at 120 volts he complains about the pain and at 150 volts he demands to be released. At 285 volts he screams in agonizing pain.2 If the teacher expresses an unwillingness to continue the experimenter responds with prods such as "Please continue", "The experiment requires that you continue", "It is absolutely essential that you continue" or "You have no other choice, you must go on".
The incredible results to these experiments were that 65% of all participants continued to the highest level of shock of 450 volts. Many of the participants exhibited signs of extreme tension, especially when administering higher levels of shock. Subjects were observed sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips and even succumbing to fits of nervous laughter.
Milgram conducted many variations of the experiment which allowed him to gain some insight into the situational differences which allowed for more or less resistance to authority. His primary explanation as to why most subjects did not refuse to continue with the experiment was that once they had accepted the right and role of the authority figure, they relinquished responsibility to that person. "The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred, all of the essential features of obedience follow. The most far-reaching consequence is that the person feels responsible to the authority directing him but feels no responsibility for the content of the actions that the authority prescribes. Morality does not disappear -- it acquires a radically different focus: the subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority.
Language provides numerous terms to pinpoint this type of morality: loyalty, duty, discipline are all terms heavily saturated with moral meaning and refer to the degree to which a person fulfills his obligations to authority. They refer not to the "goodness" of the person per se but to the adequacy with which a subordinate fulfills his socially defined role. The most frequent defense of the individual who has performed a heinous act under command of authority is that he has simply done his duty. In asserting this defense, the individual is not introducing an alibi concocted for the moment but is reporting honestly on the psychological attitude induced by submission to authority."3
There have been various replications of Milgram's experiment by both scientist and non scientist which have resulted in similar outcomes. This video is a replication conducted by social psychologist Jerry Burger which aired on the BBC back in 2009.
Another very controversial recreation was the 2010 french documentary Le Jeu de la Mort (The Game of Death) which included a version of the Milgram experiment turned into a reality TV show.
1. Milgram. "Behavior Study of Obedience" The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67.4 (1963): 371-378
2. Milgram. Obedience to Authority. HarperCollins,1974
3. Milgram. "The Perils of Obedience" Harper's December 1973: 62-77 http://myclass.peelschools.org/sec/12/28291/Homework/Milgram%20-%20perils%20of%20obediance.pdf