Milgram, who also came up with the theory behind "six degrees of separation" -- the idea that everyone is connected to everyone else through a small number of acquaintances -- set out to figure out why people would turn against their own neighbors in circumstances such as Nazi-occupied Europe. Referring to Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, Milgram wrote in 1974, "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?"
His experiment in its standard form included a fake shock machine, a "teacher," a "learner" and an experimenter in a laboratory setting. The participant was told that he or she had to teach the student to memorize a pair of words, and the punishment for a wrong answer was a shock from the machine.
The teacher sat in front of the shock machine, which had 30 levers, each corresponding to an additional 15 volts. With each mistake the student made, the teacher had to pull the next lever to deliver a more painful punishment.
While the machine didn't generate shocks and a recorded voice track simulated painful reactions, the teacher was led to believe that he or she was shocking a student, who screamed and asked to leave at higher voltages, and eventually fell silent.
If the teacher questioned continuing as instructed, the experimenter simply said, "The experiment requires that you go on," said Thomas Blass, author of the biography "The Man Who Shocked The World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram" and the Web site StanleyMilgram.com.
About 65 percent of participants pulled levers corresponding to the maximum voltage -- 450 volts -- in spite of the screams of agony from the learner.
"What the experiment shows is that the person whose authority I consider to be legitimate, that he has a right to tell me what to do and therefore I have obligation to follow his orders, that person could make me, make most people, act contrary to their conscience," Blass said.
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