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‘Please continue’ – did this simple two-word phrase lead normal people to ‘torture’ strangers?

Writer : David Kaposi, Psychotherapist and Senior Lecturer in Psychology, The Open College

Would you electrocute an harmless stranger when you have been informed to take action by somebody able of authority? That is the dilemma lots of of US adults have been offered with in Stanley Milgram’s well-known and controversial “obedience to authority” experiments that ran from 1961 to 1962.

As with many social psychologists of his age, Milgram’s formative expertise was the Nazi genocide of European Jews in the course of the Second World Conflict. Wishing to grasp what had made one of many best crimes in human historical past attainable, he devised a sequence of experiments to search out out extra about people’ compliance within the face of authority.

Arriving at Milgram’s lab, a naive participant met one other obvious volunteer in addition to a lab-coated “experimenter”. The experimenter defined that they have been about to take part in an experiment on “reminiscence and studying” after which requested the pair to attract tons to assign one the position of “learner” and the opposite that of “instructor”. The learner was then escorted into an adjoining room to have electrodes connected to his arms. Whereas the participant, now formally the “instructor”, and the experimenter returned to the room in entrance of an electrical shock generator and a row of switches – starting from 15 volts (“slight shock”) to 375 volts (“hazard: extreme shock”) to 450 volts (“XXX”).

A sequence of phrase pairs have been then learn to the learner, whose process was to recollect these pairs accurately. The instructor’s job was to “educate” by administering progressively stronger electrical shocks every time the learner didn’t keep in mind the proper pair.

The shocks weren’t actual: the learner was a part of the experiment group and the draw was rigged. But, Milgram argued, the overwhelming majority of individuals didn’t present any signal of realising that the true goal of the experiment was not how the “learner” learns, however what occurs when the “learner” grunts, then protests loudly and screams in ache, or when he abruptly falls right into a lethal silence. Would the instructor proceed on the mere say-so of the experimenter? Milgram’s astonishing discovering was that over half of them did: “electrocuting” an harmless stranger with rising severity as much as the top of the dimensions.

Explaining what occurred

Milgram was famously by no means in a position to match the horror in his lab with an satisfactory principle to clarify it. Up till his dying in 1984, he remained preoccupied with the disturbing spectre of his individuals’ administering electrical shocks whereas being clearly tormented.

However regardless of the dearth of concrete rationalization, in addition to excellent questions relating to Milgram’s technique, the experiments continued to be seen as having revealed the reality about humanity and have been used to clarify atrocities from the Holocaust to the intense abuse of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib jail by US troopers. Continued, that’s, till round a decade in the past when lecturers started to interrogate the immense quantity of information across the experiments, at a devoted archive at Yale College.

One in style present rationalization means that individuals stayed within the experiment not as a result of they have been merely following orders, however as a result of they enthusiastically recognized with the experimenter. Individuals, then, weren’t passive “cogs within the machine”, however motivated pursuers of “evil”, within the supposedly virtuous title of science.


Setup of probably the most well-known circumstances in Milgram’s ‘obedience to authority’ experimental sequence.
Fred the Oyster, Wikimedia, CC BY

One other in style account focuses on arguments between the experimenter and the individuals, suggesting that whether or not or not the instructor electrocuted the learner relied on the result of a debate that they had with the “witty” experimenter. It has additionally been claimed that maybe individuals’ seeming obedience got here from the actual fact they noticed by way of the experimental deception. Or one other principle goes that in what amounted to a traumatic state of affairs, individuals have been successfully coerced by the experimenter into electrocuting the learner.

The tapes

Given the variety of present theories, I needed to discover out extra in regards to the man who sat within the room with the individuals. What was he like? And the way did his behaviour affect individuals’s behaviour? As an alternative of counting on accounts after the occasion, I used the audiotapes of 140 of Milgram’s experiment periods and tried to account for every thing the experimenter did.

My place to begin was what now we have at all times identified – when individuals resisted, Milgram’s experimenter responded with a succession of 4 “prods”:

Prod 1: Please proceed.

Prod 2: The experiment requires that you just proceed.

Prod 3: It’s completely important that you just proceed.

Prod 4: You haven’t any different selection, it’s essential to go on.

Certainly, the experimenter usually used these phrases to “prod” individuals to proceed. However the frequency with which “Please proceed” was used was practically as a lot as all the opposite prods thrice put collectively – and it virtually at all times led to individuals persevering with the electrocution.

In distinction, all through the 140 periods, there may be subsequent to no try from the experimenter both to change into a motivating chief or to aggressively coerce individuals. And whereas there are generally arguments superior by the experimenter, they’re spectacularly unsuccessful. They have an inclination to result in individuals’ rapid departure from the experiment.

‘Please proceed’

However why was a well mannered little phrase on the very centre of probably the most notorious experiments within the historical past of psychology? It’s not simple to reply this query, however allow us to be a part of “Participant 2010” simply as she shocks the learner with 405 volts. After earlier bouts of violent screams, she abruptly encounters an eerie silence:

Milgram’s obedience experimental periods.
Writer supplied (no reuse)337 KB (obtain)

Trainer: “405 volts”


             - the learner does not scream anymore]

Trainer: “Gold moon.”

             - the learner does not protest anymore]

Trainer: “Laborious – stone, head, bread, work.”

             [long silence 
             – the learner does not provide an answer] 

Trainer: “Assume he’s alright?…”

Experimenter: “Please proceed”


Trainer: “420 volts”


To me, what this reveals is that “Please proceed” was something however a well mannered phrase in these experiments. Not solely did it ignore the participant’s worries, it additionally sought to eradicate any questions or issues. And I consider that, subtly however relentlessly, the continual use of “Please proceed” labored in the direction of destroying any vestige of humanity from Milgram’s individuals.

Milgram’s experimenter was clearly not a bully who beat individuals into submission. Certainly, the individuals inevitably stop the experiment the second they perceived him to be impolite. What individuals have been astonishingly weak to, nevertheless, was the violence hiding within the smallest of his utterances.

Did peculiar US residents change into “torturers” due to an invisible but relentless assault on them? Possibly they might not cease doing evil, as a result of they didn’t recognise that evil was being carried out to them. And this will even be the lesson we are able to lastly draw from the experiments which have haunted psychology for six many years. It’s not sufficient to imply effectively. The origins of human violence to others could also be present in acts that appear barely noticeable.


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