During a period of several years in the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments on obedience to authority. While the experimental methods used by Milgram during that era would today raise serious ethical concerns, his results are important and germane because they found that people will obey authority even when it violates their core values and leads them to harm others. Milgram's research on obedience to authority focused upon a clear moral dilemma: obedience is essential for social organization, but obedience can also lead to such chapters in history as the genocide of Jews during World War II. Individuals are trained from an early age to be obedient to authority, but those who otherwise abhor hurting others will commit extreme acts of cruelty toward others if ordered to do so by an authority. Milgram observed that obedience is at the same time both necessary and potentially destructive. .
While the extermination camps of Nazi Germany bear no resemblance to a university laboratory, Milgram tried to maintain the essential elements of such extreme conditions during his experiments, and the scope of Milgram's studies leave researchers in wide agreement that his results are disturbingly generalizable. .
Milgram's experiments consisted of soliciting ordinary people to participate in a memory study. These people were brought to a laboratory setting where they were told they would be playing the role of a teacher. As a teacher, they would read a series of word pairs to another person, the learner, who was strapped to what looked like an electric chair behind a partition. The teacher's task was to test the learner's memory. Whenever the learner gave an incorrect response, the teacher was to administer an electric shock to the learner. The degree of these "shocks" could be controlled by levers labeled from 15 volts, a slight shock, to 450 volts, a severe and dangerous shock.