When Dateline decided to demonstrate how our brains are hardwired to follow authority, we turned to the classic “shock” experiment conducted in the 1960‘s by Stanley Milgram. The results of his “Obedience to Authority Experiment” were so profound that his work is still a staple in psychology courses today.
We knew that Milgram’s experiment raised ethical concerns in the scientific community. Critics were concerned about potential harm imposed on participants. We also knew that 84 percent of former Milgram participants surveyed later said they were “glad” or “very glad” to have participated, 15 percent chose neutral responses, (92% of all former participants responding)* and only one percent reported regret at having been in the experiment.
All of our participants voluntarily signed releases in advance accepting, among other things, that the filming may involve stressful, distressing or shocking situations. We knew that our illustration was not scientific. Therefore, we planned ahead of time that if any contestant seemed emotionally distressed we would stop the game and let him or her know that no one was ever shocked.
We had one participant who did appear to be struggling, so we ended the demonstration. By the time she left, she was hugging every person in the room expressing gratitude for being a part of our piece. She said she felt as if she had learned something valuable about herself.
* Milgram, Stanley. (1974), Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View. Harpercollins (ISBN 0-06-131983-X).