This sculpture references the obedience and authority experiment of the American psychologist Stanley Milgram. In the experiment the subjects were told that they would be participating in an experiment to test the effects of punishment on learning and that they would be working with a “learner” in another room that they could hear but not see. The learner was given a list of word pairs to memorise and if they recalled the word incorrectly the subject would give the learner an electric shock, with the voltage increasing with each wrong answer. If correct, the subject would read the next word pair. The subjects believed that the learner was receiving actual shocks; in fact it was just a tape recorder. At a certain point a hired actor banged on the wall, and playing the part of the victim, complained about their heart condition. At this point, many people wanted stop the experiment and check on the learner.
If at any time the subject wanted to halt the experiment, they were given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter in this order;
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
If the subject still wished to stop after four of the verbal prods in succession, the experiment was stopped. Otherwise the experiment would be stopped after the maximum 450-volt shock had been given three times in succession.
In Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 out of 40) of experimental participants administered the experiment's final 450-volt shock, though many were quite uncomfortable in doing so; everyone paused at some point and questioned the experiment, some even saying they would return the cheque for the money they were paid for taking part in the experiment. No participant steadfastly refused to give further shocks before the 300-volt level.*