What makes soldiers abuse prisoners? How could Nazi officials condemn thousands of Jews to gas chamber deaths? What’s going on when underlings help cover up a financial swindle? For years, researchers have tried to identify the factors that drive people to commit cruel and brutal acts and perhaps no one has contributed more to this knowledge than psychological scientist Stanley Milgram.
Just over 50 years ago, Milgram embarked on what were to become some of the most famous studies in psychology. In these studies, which ostensibly examined the effects of punishment on learning, participants were assigned the role of "teacher" and were required to administer shocks to a "learner" that increased in intensity each time the learner gave an incorrect answer. As Milgram famously found, participants were willing to deliver supposedly lethal shocks to a stranger, just because they were asked to do so.
Researchers have offered many possible explanations for the participants’ behavior and the take-home conclusion that seems to have emerged is that people cannot help but obey the orders of those in authority, even when those orders go to the extremes.
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