Experimenter is the true story of experiments run in the 1960s that went to prove the human propensity for obedience, even when inflicting pain on someone else.
When looking back at the Holocaust and the dreadful and horrifying treatment of the Jews in the prison camps, it is often hard to imagine how anyone could do these things to a fellow human being. In more recent years, the torture inflicted on alleged terrorists in Gitmo and various other prisons has come to light, and these days, ISIS is infamous for its brutal and horrifying methods of killing people.
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Back in the 1960s, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram was troubled by the consequences of the Nazi regime and conducted a series of experiments in an attempt to uncover the truth behind the human reaction to authority.
This was shortly after the trial of the World War II criminal, Adolph Eichmann, where in his defense, Eichmann said he was merely following instructions from above when he ordered the deaths of millions of Jews in the Nazi prison camps.
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Milgram asked, in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority, “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” He went on to say that many people will obey authority regardless of what they are requested to do.
“A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act, and without pangs of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.”
One of his most famous experiments is the story behind the 2015 film, Experimenter. It was back in 1961 that Milgram and his team members ran a series of experiments to observe the behavior of unsuspecting people who believe they are part of a team.
Using newspaper ads, Milgram recruited 40 men, and each man was paid $4.00 for an hour of their time.
According to About.com, using a special box with switches and dials (pictured top of article), Milgram’s study participants, who were dubbed the “teacher,” were asked to deliver a series of questions to a person locked away in a room, dubbed the “learner.” The “experimenter” instructed them that should the person answer incorrectly, an electric shock of varying intensities would be applied.
The shock generator developed by Milgram and pictured above had various levels, starting with 30 volts, and then increasing in 15-volt increments up to the highest level of 450 volts. The switches on the box were labeled with terms like “Slight Shock,” “Moderate Shock,” “Very Strong Shock,” “Intense Shock,” “Extremely Intense Shock,” and “Danger: Severe Shock.” The last two switches in the row merely had a more ominous label, “XXX.”
The diagram below shows the “experimenter” (labeled E), the “teacher,” labeled T, and the supposed “learner” in the next room, labeled L.
As the experiments were run, in the background the voices of the “learners” could be heard, saying they don’t want to do this anymore, it hurts, and often crying out in pain, but when told by authority to do so, the “teacher” continues to afflict them with further pain.
In each instance, the “teacher” questions whether he or she should do this, or looks nervous and hesitant, often telling the “experimenter” that he no longer wishes to do this, but in every case, once told by authority that they must do it, they continue.
When questioned by the “teacher,” the responses from the “experimenter” included phrases like “Please continue,” or “The experiment requires that you continue,” or even “You have no other choice; you must go on.”
In truth, there were no electrical shocks inflicted on another party, and the people taking part as the “learners” in the “survey” were mere actors, but the results of the experiments were startling.
Think to yourself, if you were told by a person in authority to deliver a 400-volt electric shock to another human being, would you follow orders, or would you question authority? While we might immediately say no, we wouldn’t follow orders, according to Milgram, this is not the case when faced with the ultimate authority and told to do it.
The video below shows some of the footage taken of the original experiments carried out by Milgram in 1961 and we hear Milgram speaking of his reasoning for the experiments.
Even in the case of a “learner” who says he suffers from heart problems, when the “teacher” questions the “experimenter” about inflicting further pain, on hearing the voice of authority, he continues to press the offending switch.
Out of the 40 participants in the study, 26 delivered the maximum shocks when told to do so by authority, and the other 14 stopped before reaching the maximum 450-volt shock. In many cases, the participants became distraught and angry with the “experimenter,” but they continued to follow orders regardless.
The film Experimenter opened on October 16 and stars Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram and Winona Ryder playing the role of Sasha Menkin Milgram. The trailer for the movie is included below.
[Photo Experimenter courtesy the official website]