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  • Writer's pictureAlanna Grayce

Episode 7: The Milgram Experiment and Keyboard Warriors

I've been thinking a lot about how mean humans are to each other- especially online. Today I'm sharing with you an awesome comparison that really should make us take a step back and think about how we act towards others.

So, have y’all ever heard of the Milgram experiment? Let me fill ya in.

Beginning in 1961, a Yale psychologist by the name of Stanley Milgram started what would become an iconic study focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He was inspired to begin these experiments by the Nuremberg War Criminal trials, during which many Nazis were accused of acts of genocide.

These Nazis often justified their actions as “obedience”- they were just following orders. We’ve heard that argument a thousand times in this day and age, I feel. Milgram implemented this experiment in an attempt to answer whether Adolf Eichmann specifically, one of the key Nazi players who made the just following orders defense, and the other million Nazis who were complicit also, were just obeying orders. He wanted to give scientific evidence to whether or not they can be called accomplices. Whether or not we can consider them complicit.

So: Milgram sought to test at what point would a person stop harming another human, in spite of the orders of an authority figure.

Milgram began by advertising for male participants to take part in a learning survey at Yale University. Procedurally, they were introduced to and paired with another person and drew lots to determine who would play the part of the learner and who would play the part of the teacher. However- the draw was fixed so that the volunteer would always be the teacher, and the “learner” was a fake participant who was in on the game. So the learner would be taken into a room and they attached electrodes to his arms, and then the teacher and researcher went next door to a room with an electric shock danger and a row of 30 switches marked with their voltage levels, from “slight shock”, to “danger: severe shock”, and finally “XXX”.

The whole situation was that the learner was given a list of word pairs to learn, and the teacher would test him by naming a word and asking for its partner from a list of four choices. So, multiple choice. The teacher is told to administer a shock every time the learner makes a mistake, and to increase the shock level each time. The learner would purposely give mainly wrong answers, so that the teacher kept having to increase the shock. When a teacher refused, the experimenter in the room would give a “prod”: “please continue”. If they did not obey that, they would be told prod 2: “the experiment requires you to continue”. If they did not obey still, they were told #3: “it is absolutely essential that you continue”. Finally, prod 4: “you have no other choice but to continue.”

This experiment was aimed at understanding how EASILY ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities- as many Germans argued of themselves in WWII. Milgram found that 65% of participants (“teachers”) continued to the highest level of volts, XXX. ALL of the participants continued to 300 volts. This experiment, and the 18 variations he administered of it, prove rather significantly that people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure even to the extent of killing an innocent.

NOTE: I do think its important to include that the variations of the experiment do prove that under different conditions the obedience will change- from absent experimenters, change in perceived importance of location, and social support. This experiment also raises some questions of ethics, sample bias, etc. however, acknowledging all of that, I still think the findings are significant.

Now, keep all of this in mind:

You’ve definitely heard of keyboard warriors, right? They’re actually defined by Oxford Languages as a person who makes abusive or aggressive posts on the internet, often concealing their true identity. Sounds like a lot of people in this social media age, honestly, but it's especially pertinent today as we think about the conspiracies and just shitty things being said around coronavirus, around elections, around the 2020 Civil Rights Movement- there’s all of this space for people to say awful things online and not even care that they could be hurting someone.

So now, think about the Milgram experiment again. This teacher/volunteer is being told by a person of “authority” that they have to shock somebody, most times ending in what would be a DEADLY SHOCK that is literally marked with XXX. This is the international symbol for THIS WILL FRICKIN KILL YOU. And even though they met the person on the other side of the wall before the experiment, and this person believes that they were randomly chosen to be in these positions and each had equal likelihood to be the one being shocked- ALL OF THIS and the teacher still shocks them to death. Because they are "just doing what they’re told."

Even though they know that there is a person in there, a person that they have MET physically, they can’t see what this person is going through as they shock them. so there is less recognition of that for some reason. The “learner” has been humanized by physical contact and the fact that they were equally likely to be in the exact same position, and yet dehumanized by physical distance and some measly drywall.

In the exact same sense, we know that the person on the other side of the computer screen is a person. (Don’t bring up bots rn ok?) So why is that it is so easy for us to dehumanize WHAT WE KNOW IS A PERSON online just because we can’t see them? This can clearly be compared to Milgram’s teachers, who were able to separate themselves from a subject’s humanity during these experiments and shock another person- yes, they’re being instructed to, but the essence is the same, and you know it is.

Is this perhaps why it is so much easier to call another person names, to generalize an entire group of people, to roast someone into oblivion, on social media? Is that why we speak about celebrities and influencers and just generally other humans with this detachment, and why it's so easy to pass cruel judgement on them? Because they don’t seem real to us? And is that why it's so easy to generalize a group and use “THEM” and “YOU PEOPLE” style references to further ostracize them and attempt to undermine their right to both opinion and humanity?

Why don’t we think more on the effects our words as internet trolls, Facebook racists or anti-something or other on Twitter will have on the lives of others? Why don't we think of people as people???

This applies to cancel culture, this applies to it being trendy to bully somebody on TikTok (which is an insane phenomena). This applies to a lot of situations, y'all.

This stuff happens no matter the subject. Masks, whether or not covid is real, this week’s political scandal. It could be as stupid as a feud over coffee versus tea, really. Such small things can get so out of hand, especially when some hyped up freak hiding behind a cartoon profile picture and vague name decide to tell you to kill yourself because you prefer earl grey to a macchiato. Their opinion is the only one, right? It’s important to understand that even with such a stupid, trivial subject of the argument, the vitriol and lack of empathy for another human is there regardless.

REMINDER: You should THINK ABOUT YOUR ACTIONS AND HOW THEY WILL AFFECT SOMEONE ELSE rather than assuming that your freedom to let whatever you want roll out of your brain and off of your tongue is inherently more important than how it might impact someone else. We must always keep in mind that the person we are typing to, is a person indeed. It is so easy to lose our humanity, even when so little separates us.

Pod and blog source:

McLeod, S. A. (2017, Febuary 05). The milgram shock experiment. Simply Psychology.

Important takeaways:


Internet trolls

Nazi Germany


People are people

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