The idea for Milgram’s study arose partially from the Holocaust and its aftermath. During the Nuremberg trials, the Nazi war criminals frequently said that in the death camps they were only following orders. They did not say, “I did the wrong thing,” but instead, “I did what I was told”.
One can certainly question whether everyone in the world is capable of the kinds of actions that the Nazis carried out. There were many other historical factors at work in the development of Hitler’s dictatorship and the implementation of the Nazis’ genocidal policies. But all the same, Milgram examined that suspect, horrifying defence, “I did what I was told”, and discovered that ordinary Americans – and people of other nationalities – were often more prepared than he would have thought to be cruel to innocent strangers.
At this link, you can watch a short video and a transcript of an interview with several Australians who were involved in an experiment similar to Milgram’s in the 1970s at La Trobe University. The long-term effects on the participants are explored in a compassionate way. Their mental suffering, even decades afterwards, highlights the cruelty of the study and the ethical principles it breached.
Milgram, however ethically suspect his study was, identified one factor in particular that reduced the numbing willingness of most participants to obey his lab coat-clad authority figure. The presence of a rebel reduces the power of the authority figure and the willingness to obey – more than any other factor.
This is why psychology students who have learned about Milgram’s work should be motivated to rebel against amoral authority, cruelty, injustice, hypocrisy and atrocities whenever they encounter them. The message is still pertinent today.