By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
In the early Sixties as Adolf Eichmann's Nazi war crimes trial was taking place in Jerusalem, the world was asking, was there something different about those who committed crimes on that scale, or were they just obeying orders? Just a few months later, a social scientist began a series of experiments in a small basement at Yale University to arrive at what's become probably the most famous finding in social science. Stanley Milgram's research, first published in 1963, involved a setting where one research participant is a "teacher," and another (actually a confederate working for the experimenter) is a "learner," and the teacher is required by the conditions of the study to deliver electric shocks in response to wrong answers from the learner. The shocks start out mild, then gradually escalate. When the shocks seem to be causing severe pain and potentially even injury, and most teachers express a reluctance to keep delivering electric shocks, the authority figure running the study simply repeats, "The experiment requires that you continue." And they obeyed.
In the original experiment, fully 65 percent of the teachers continued without refusing all the way to the most severe shocks. And, unfortunately, the finding does not seem to be just an artifact of the era. A recent replication by Polish researchers (Doliński et al, 2017) carries the title, "Would You Deliver an Electric Shock in 2015?" The answer? Probably "Yes." Fully 90 percent of participants were willing to go to the highest shock level. Dr. Tomasz Grzyb, a study author, said, "Our study has, yet again, illustrated the tremendous power of the situation the subjects are confronted with and how easily they can agree to things which they find unpleasant.” The original results and their replication raise the uncomfortable question of just how much of persuasion comes down to the influence of authority. In Milgram's view, the study illustrates that when our individual moral views are pitted against the pull toward obedience, then in most cases, that pull toward obedience is going to win out. There are a few ways this matters to legal persuasion.