The Power of an Awkward Moment

stanley_milgramStanley Milgram was a psychologist at Yale.


In the early 1960’s he conducted a controversial experiment that changed the way scientists viewed the idea of free will.


Milgram’s experiment brought some of the most chilling aspects of human behavior into the public eye.


An Experiment on Obedience


Subjects for the experiment were brought into the psychology building at Yale.


They had come to partake in an experiment on ‘memory and learning’ and receive $4.50 in compensation.


Upon entering the room, they met with another ‘random’ participant (actually an actor on Milgram’s staff).


A researcher in a grey lab coat welcomed them both into the experimentation room, where a large machine sat on a desk on the far wall.


A row of switches went down the length of the machine. The first switch was labeled 15 volts, the second was labeled 30 volts, then 45 volts, and on and on all the way up to the last switch labeled 450 volts.


Plates over the switches showed that the danger of the shocks went from ‘Mild Shock’ to ‘Severe Shock’ and so on. The final three switches (420, 435, and 450 volts) were ominously labeled ‘XXX.’


The researcher produced a hat with two pieces of paper inside. The subject, unaware that the other participant was an actor, drew a piece of paper from the hat.


‘Teacher.” he uttered, reading from his piece of paper.


“Learner.” Muttered the actor, supposedly reading from his own piece of paper.


The researcher then beckoned the actor (Learner) into a room where he was strapped into a chair. The researcher placed an electrode onto his left hand.


“With electrode gel,” mentioned the researcher, “to keep you from getting burns.”


The Learner was shown four buttons in front of him. He was to push these in order to signal his answers to the Subject (Teacher).


The unknowing ‘Teacher’ was brought into the first room, sat down in front of the large machine, and told to read a long string of word pairs into his microphone so that the learner could hear him in the far room.


‘Blue…. Ink’





He then repeated certain words to the ‘Learner’ who would need to correctly specify which word fit with the pair that the teacher read at the beginning of the experiment.


‘Blue…… Boy, Ink, Sky, Hat.’


If the ‘Learner’ pressed the second button, specifying ‘Ink’ he was told he was correct and the teacher moved on to the next group of words.


If the ‘Learner’ was incorrect, the Teacher would need to flip one of the switches on the machine to give the Learner a small shock. Every time the patient was incorrect, the Teacher was instructed to move to the next switch, increasing the voltage from 15 volts to 30, then 45, and so on.


The researcher explained that the purpose of this study was to learn if punishment would help the ‘Learner’ remember word pairs more clearly.


“Not much research has been conducted on punishment and learning,” The researcher would explain, “and this study will vastly increase our breadth of knowledge on the subject.”


The real reason for the experiment was quite different.


When Can You Say ‘No!’ 


Milgram was actually interested in learning about how far his unknowing subjects would blindly follow authority.


He wanted to see at what point normal, everyday men from Yale’s home of New Haven could be lead to do terrible things to innocent individuals who posed no threat to them whatsoever.


His interest came from his knowledge of the Nazi death camps.


“How could a nation of normal, peaceful individuals quickly build and operate a death machine of epic proportions? Why was this horror met with so little protest?” He wondered.


He speculated that perhaps these same results could be replicated in America, with similarly peaceful individuals who showed no signs of insanity or the desire to harm others.


The Disturbing Findings


Where this study gets interesting is at the point where the Learner has made his 10th mistake of the evening. As the experiment requires, the Teacher flips the switch labeled 150 volts.


As he does so, the Learner screams out in pain, demanding to be released from the experiment.


The Teacher looks back at the researcher. “Well, I guess the experiment is over.” he says.


‘Please continue.’ replies the researcher


“But he’s crying out in pain!” says the Teacher “Surely you can’t continue this study.”


“The experiment requires that you continue.” Responds the researcher firmly.


Grudgingly, the Teacher turns back to his desk “Cold….. Ice, Water, Morning, Snow.” he speaks into the microphone.


The response from the Learner is again, incorrect. The Teacher reaches forward and flips the 165-volt switch. Once again, the Learner screams out in pain.


The Learner continues to make mistakes and beg to be let out of the experiment. This cycle continues until the Teacher flips the switch reading 300 volts.


At this point the Learner lets out an agonizing scream, and then goes silent.


“It is essential that you continue.” Says the researcher. “Just count silence as an incorrect answer.”


By now, the Teacher is sweating and feeling sick. Even so, he continues Awkward Feeling1reading lists of words (with no response from the learner) and flipping electric switches of increasing intensity. After he has flipped the final switch, labeled ‘XXX’, three times, the researcher finally halts him.


‘The experiment is now over.” He declares.


The Teacher, now frightened and sweating profusely, collapses into his chair, exhausted from the stress of this mental ordeal.


The Stunning Numbers


How many of these ‘Teachers’ (Test Subjects) actually followed through with their orders?


How many (in their own minds at least) killed a man at the word of an unknown researcher in a grey coat?


Shockingly, nearly two thirds of the individuals who went in to this study flipped every switch, going all the way from a harmless 15 volts to a deadly 450-volt switch labeled ‘XXX.’


They continued even as the Learner begged to be let go. They continued as he screamed in pain. They continued even after he had gone silent.


These men weren’t sadistic killers.


They were salesman, plumbers, teachers, and doctors from the local community. They were average, everyday men. They were active in their communities and they worked hard to earn a living and pay their bills.


So… what made these men murder?


Authority and Avoiding Awkwardness


In his research paper describing his experiemnts, Milgram explained that there are certain ‘binding factors’ that ‘lock the subject into the situation,’ forcing him to continue doing something he knows is wrong.


The main reason the subject continues shocking the ‘Learner’ is that the subject feels awkward saying ‘No.’ to the researcher. The subject is very unlikely to say ‘No.’ to the authority figure in that given situation.


The feeling that saying ‘No.’ would be ‘awkward’ lead two thirds of these peaceful individuals to kill innocent strangers.


None of the subjects were physically forced. They were not threatened. They were simply told “The experiment must go on.” in a firm voice from the present authority figure.


Because the researcher was in a place of authority, two thirds of the subjects found it impossible to say ‘No.’ and easier to kill an innocent stranger.


The Takeaway


Awkwardness can lead normal men (and women in an identical, later experiment) to kill.


Before understanding Milgram’s experiments, I did not give this subtle force the respect it deserves. This force is powerful, and it has been inborn in us from the days where we lived in small tribes scattered around the world.


The power awkwardness shows itself very powerfully in Milgram’s experiment. In my life, and perhaps your life as well, it is also present (just in a less dramatic fashion).


Have you ever felt the awkwardness of….


  1. Negotiating the price of a big purchase you are about to make
  2. Approaching your landlord to ask that he repair some damages
  3. Speaking with a prospective employer about what salary you deserve


Each of these individuals is a person in a place of authority (His product, His apartment building, His company). It is normal to feel awkward disagreeing with someone who we believe has authority in a certain area.




Do Not Let Awkwardness Stop You From Acting


Think about the subjects in Milgram’s experiments who killed an innocent victim simply because a man in a grey jacket told them to.


Are you perhaps, killing yourself because you feel it would be awkward to speak up against authority figures in your life? Do you feel the fear from your caveman-age social cues?


It is extremely important to question those in authority above you.


Ask why they deserve to dictate your actions.


Ask why they get to decide the price, the conditions, or your compensation.


If the only reason is ‘Because they say so.’ Then you may be no better than the subjects in Milgram’s experiments, blindly following orders with a total loss of free will.