Every Evil Starts at 15 Volts.

“Every evil starts at 15 volts.”

Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist (in)famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment said this to describe the results of the famous obedience experiment by Stanley Milgram, with whom he had attended high school.

SAFER: . . . are you suggesting that-that it could happen here?
MILGRAM: I would say, on the basis of having observed a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and informed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town. 
(CBS News, Sixty Minutes, March 31, 1979)

The Milgram Paradigm

The Milgram Paradigm is a sociological paradigm that began with a series of experiments conducted in the early 1960s by Stanley Milgram. These experiments were designed to test which would win in a conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.

The Milgram Experiments:

A study participant and a study “confederate” were paired. The participant was “randomly” chosen to be the “teacher” while the other was the “learner.” The learner was taken into a separate room where he had electrodes attached to his arm. The teacher was taken into a room with a bank of switches that were labeled from 15-volts to 375-volts (DANGER) and then 450-volts (XXX).

The teacher was then told to respond to the learner’s mistakes in memory by shocking the learner, starting at the low voltage and increasing through to 450-volts.

The learner gave incorrect answers on purpose as he was not actually attached and was in on the experimental setup.

The experimenter stayed in the room with the teacher and prodded the teacher to continue.

  1. “Please continue.”
  2. “The experiment requires that you continue.”
  3. “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
  4. “You have no other choice but to continue.”

The learner would make loud noises of pain as the shocks became more and more severe. 

Toward the end of some of the experiments, the learner would complain about their heart and ask, plead, demand to be released from the experiment.

Sixty-five percent of the study participants the “teachers,” who started at 15 volts took every step to 450 volts. They struggled, protested, were stressed and discomforted toward the end, but they went to 450 volts. Sometimes the learner would stop responding before the final switches. Still, 65% of the teachers advanced.

ALL of the teachers went to 300 volts.

Milgram, and for 40 years others, conducted many variations on the original study, mostly making one change at a time.

The statistics are robust.

A follow-up study was conducted in 2017. 

The statistics are the same.

You might think that you would refuse.

The statistics say otherwise.

We know, from a number of other studies, that people tend to do what they think is expected of them by the authorities in their lives:
Their bosses.
Their political leaders
Their peers.
Their teachers.
Their community.

We are conformists.
In fact, when one particular variation of the original Milgram experiments was conducted, obedience fell to 10%.
What was that variation?
There were other “teachers” in the room with the actual study participant. When those others (who were playing a role) refused to participate, 90% of the time so did the study participant.
And in the reverse experiment, when the other teachers continued to 450-volts, compliance by the test subject was increased to 90%. That is, instead of the 65% of participants agreeing to go to 450-volts, 90% of the participants went to 450-volts.

We are conformists.

“With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter’s definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts.”

“Every evil starts with 15-volts.”

When study participants were started at higher voltages, obedience decreased dramatically. 

 But Milgram only studied men?

In his original, first experiment, yes. However, he included women in subsequent experiments. 

And Another study found that women tend to be more conformant than men. That is, when there was a group of women “teachers,” women tended to go along with the rest of the group, whether they were fully obedient or disobedient.
A different experimenter used a puppy as the “learner.” The puppy was visible to the subjects. A high enough voltage was transferred to cause a real (albeit minor) shock to be delivered to the puppy. This caused the puppy to whine in pain. Even so, 100% of the subjects who were women were fully obedient. And 54% of the men were fully obedient.

“We know better now. We wouldn’t let something like this happen again.”

 No. Several follow-up studies show just the opposite. A 2017 study that replicated the most extreme part of the original Milgram experiment showed that behaviors today are the same.

Another experiment tested whether people who had learned about these studies would be less likely to participate in a similarly destructive obedience study. They found that when students were asked to “lead” a study similar to Milgram’s, 92% tried to force the study through to the full 450-volt shocks. This is true even though they knew about Milgram’s experiments AND even though they were quizzed about obedience rates and reasons for obedience.

 Teaching people about the destructive effects of obedience to authority does not necessarily lead to less obedience. It can lead to such people choosing not to put themselves into such situations, but once those situations exist, it is psychologically very difficult for one to break the destructive obedience trap. 


Are we all evil people?

 No. We are good people who do what we think is expected of us.

It seems there are only two relevant factors in whether someone will defy authority when it comes to destructive behaviors: A peer or group of peers who lead the defiance or an “authority” they don’t view as legitimate. The very best way to break the destructive obedience trap is to see a different behavior modeled by someone we trust. 



The Milgram Paradigm After 35 Years: Some Things We Now Know About Obedience to Authority, Thomas Blass, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1999, pp. 955-978.