The Milgram Ex*cough* “Hey Josh, what is this again?”

The Oxford Road Building’s lecture room filled up. Interested people, as well as students fulfilling a class attendance requirement found their seats. The doors closed and the speaker, Dr. Brennan, started to introduce herself and the topic: The Milgram Experiment. Just as she proceeded to the second slide of her Powerpoint presentation, it happened. A loud cough, followed by some sniffles came from the back of the lecture room. A couple of heads turned, and saw an uninterested freshman who was busy typing away on his computer. If only they had known then how the rest of the lecture would go, then they would have tried to move as close to the front of the room as possible. For a full 45 minutes, the audience was subjected to Sandro’s coughs, sneezes, computer noises and more. It is truly amazing that he didn’t get thrown out.

The Oxford Road Building lecture room

This presentation on the Milgram Experiment was a part of the Williams Memorial lecture series, a group of lectures focused on great American works of liberal arts. Students who are enrolled in Emory’s Voluntary Core program are required to attend the lectures and learn about something they might not have found out about otherwise. The lectures typically take place every second Wednesday at 4:30pm. This specific day, Sandro was swarmed with work but somehow managed to make it to the lecture. He decided to bring his computer with him in order to be as efficient as possible, despite how distracting he knew his device would be. Sandro and Josh sat at the back of the lecture room to try and not interfere with the audience, but most people sat near the back anyways because they were uninterested.

Sandro working on his lab

“Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense was often based on “obedience” — that they were just following orders from their superiors. That’s exactly what Milgram wanted to test in his experiment” Exclaimed Dr. Brennan, but all Sandro could think of was that his lab was due at 5:00 PM and it was already 4:58 PM. What would he do? Submit the half-finished lab or- “What’s she talking about ?” said Sandro as he turned to his partner Josh on his right, letting out half a dozen coughs before actually completing the sentence. Josh, completely disregarding Sandro’s cry for help, said that the girl sitting in front of them has turned around and shifted to the farthest point of her seat every time Sandro sneezed or coughed. Both partners laughed as Sandro tapped on her shoulder to get her attention so he could apologize to her, but instead ended up coughing up a lung.

Josh and Sandro sitting in the lecture

Dr. Brennan then proceeded to explain what exactly the experiment encompassed. The procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher’. The draw was fixed so that the participant was always the teacher, and the learner was one of Milgram’s confederates (pretending to be a real participant). The participant was told that they were taking part in a study to test how the brain responds to a pain stimulus when learning new things. It is now 5 PM and Sandro’s chemistry lab has been submitted. Excited, he begins closing his laptop, but not before accidentally hitting the play button on his MacBook Pro™ and blasting Black Dog by Led Zeppelin for everyone to hear (28 minutes and 10 seconds into the lecture video if you want to listen to the tunes). Panicking, he slams his hands on they keyboard letting out a wild sneeze, and by some miracle one of the fingers must’ve hit the play button once more because the music stopped. “F**k”…. “God f**king damn it” said Sandro almost as loudly as his music had played.

Snapping back to the lecture Sandro noticed that Dr. Brennan had begun saying “The learner (a confederate called Mr. Wallace) was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms, and the teacher and researcher went into a room next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 450 volts (XXX). The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time.”

The layout of the experiment

The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose), and for each of these, the teacher gave him an “electric shock”, to which the learner pretended was real.

When the teacher refused to administer a shock the experimenter was to give a series of orders/prods to ensure they continued.

There were 4 prods and if one was not obeyed then the experimenter (Mr. Williams) read out the next prod, and so on. 40 minutes into the lecture, Sandro couldn’t help but wonder out loud, “Am I high off cough syrup?” Looking over at Josh he whispered, “I mean.. I’ve been taking 30 milligrams of Dayquil along with 2 pills of advil, and on the bottle it doesn’t even say how much i should be taking, I just.. *cough*”

After surveying the audience about what they thought of the experiment, Dr. Brennan revealed that close to 66% of participants in the experiment blindly followed the instructions of the high-and-mighty experimenter, “shocking” the learner all the way up to 450 volts (XXX). The experiment found that a scary amount of people were absolutely obedient to someone who was in a position of power. Dr. Brennan also provided come statistics for when they varied the conditions of the experiment. For instance, when the teacher had touch proximity to the leaner they found that the number of people who followed until the highest “shock” decreased by a significant amount. The lecture then transitioned into a question and answer segment, where the few people who paid full attention were excited to ask about experiment details and ethics.

Sandro leaving the lecture

With this final thought as well as Josh’s quirky “You won’t leave the lecture, you won’t” Sandro got up as the 3rd person had finished asking his question and started heading towards the door. After climbing over 4 people who were sitting in his row, he made it to the door. He gave out the signature cough, sneeze, sniffle, and blow before looking back at Josh and then exiting the lecture room.

As he met up with Josh outside the lecture hall, they started discussing the post, how in the world were they going to make this lecture in any way, shape or form creative to fit the in class rubric?  They talked and talked until they came to a conclusion. *cough*

By Sandro and Josh

Link to the video of the full lecture:

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