"...Obedience, Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth, makes slaves of men, and, of the human frame, a mechanized automaton."
~Percy Bysshe Shelley, English poet (1792-1822) (as quoted in Franzoi 298)
Interpretations of the Results
The simplest interpretation of these findings is that Milgram inadvertently recruited sadists who voluntarily inflicted pain on helpless victims. Yet as evidenced from subjects' distress as they delivered the shocks and their conversations with the experimenter, this explanation cannot account for the behavior of participants (Franzoi 299). In contrast, the results demonstrate the power of the situation with respect to human behavior, as opposed to the merciless, cruel disposition of individuals.
Milgram's findings demonstrate that the human moral sense appears to be vulnerable to external pressure: the influence of others can override strongly held convictions. The cruelty Milgram's subjects exhibited was the result of social pressure: the participants did not intend to inflict pain on others, yet they did respond to the power of the experimenter's commands. These orders were apparently more influential than the victims' pleas for release. Obedience took precedence over the desire to avoid doing harm to others (Wortman, Loftus and Weaver 610-11).
In contrast, when confederates openly rebelled against the commands of the experimenter in Milgram's follow-up studies, participants obeyed only 10 percent of the time. The likely explanation for this dramatic drop in obedience is that the defiance of the confederates broke the social consensus of the situation, and reduced the strength of the experimenter's social power. Were the subjects aware of the liberating effect that the rebellious teachers/confederates had on them? No. The majority of participants (75 percent) who disobeyed believed that they would have stopped administering shocks on their own without the other teachers' disobedient behavior. Yet Milgram's previous results strongly challenge this belief, suggesting that people seriously underestimate the impact that others have on their own behavior (Franzoi 301).