Why do people obey authority even when they sense that what they’re doing is wrong? Central to the conditions that allowed the Holocaust to occur was people’s tendencies to conform to the situations in which they find themselves.

In this class we watch a clip from the film Obedience, which documents the Milgram experiments. In the 1960s Stanley Milgram, a professor at Yale University, decided to create an experiment to see how far people would go in situations in which they are ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim. Milgram wanted to see when a person would refuse to obey the experimenter.

The subjects of these experiments were told that the experiments were testing how learning is affected by punishment. Labeled the “teacher,” the subject watched as the “learner” (who, unknown to the “teacher,” was part of Milgram’s team) was strapped into a chair with an electrode attached to each wrist. The “learner” was then told to memorize word pairs for a test and warned that wrong answers would result in electric shocks. Each teacher was taken to a separate room and seated before a “shock generator” with switches ranging from 15 volts labeled “slight shock” to 450 volts labeled “danger – severe shock.” Each “teacher” was told to administer a “shock” for each wrong answer, with shocks increasing by fifteen volts every time the “learner” responded incorrectly. The shocks were not real, but the “teachers” thought they were.

Before the experiment began, Milgram imagined that most volunteer subjects would refuse to give electric shocks of more than 150 volts, the point at which the learner starts to yell and complain of heart pain. A group of psychologists and psychiatrists predicted that slightly more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the volunteers (so 1 out of 1,000 people) would administer all 450 volts. However, more than 80% of people continued to administer shocks after reaching 150 volts, and more than 50% of the “teachers” gave the full 450 volts!

This film is always a surprise for most of the students. They are surprised by the numbers of people who obey the experimenter, even when it is clear that the subjects are troubled by what they are doing. We had small group discussions for about 20 minutes after the film, and then came back together for a large group discussion. The students were interested in examining the question of responsibility, and what responsibility the person who is inflicting the pain bears versus the responsibility of the person ordering the acts. They quickly made the connection to the Holocaust and all of the people who did not defy the edicts of the Hitler and the Nazis. We talked about whether a person is ever morally obligated to defy authority, and what it is about human beings that results in such widespread conformity.

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Let me know what you think about the film, Michael. I just show a 20-minute clip, mainly of one subject’s experience, and it has been quite an effective prompt for great discussions!

Looking forward to meeting you this fall.


Hi Jana,

Michael Burroughs here (the U of M student co-organizing the Philosophy for Children Conference). I have really enjoyed reading your blog. As for this piece, I have taught on the Milgram experiments before as well, and have found it to be a lively lesson each time. I did not know about this film–I will check it out.