The Milgram experiment shows how far most people will go in causing pain to another when instructed to do so by someone in authority. (Over 60% will do as instructed; over 90% if there is a colleague with them who complies fully.)
Reading of the violence done to captives over the years, both by criminals and the military, I conclude that the only safe thing is to do everything possible to avoid giving them power over you in the first place. Once they have that power, they are free to vent their anger, their frustrations, their plain meanness and murderousness, on you.
It is critical that we understand the implications of Milgram's findings to current times. In the name of 'anti-terror', security forces are being increased and restrictive laws enacted, with martial law contingencies and talk of internment camps. That means more people with more power over us.
This video shows a participant undergoing the experiment:L'expérience de Milgram
.The experiment explained in Wikipedia:
"In response to a newspaper ad offering $4.50 for one hour's work, an individual turns up to take part in a psychology experiment investigating memory and learning. He is introduced to a stern looking experimenter in a white coat and a rather pleasant and friendly co-subject. The experimenter explains that the experiment will look into the role of punishment in learning, and that one will be the 'teacher' and one will be the 'learner'. Lots are drawn to determine roles, and it is decided that the individual who answered the ad will become the 'teacher'.More on the Milgram experiment:A lesson in depravity, peer pressure, and the power of authority
The learner is taken to a room and strapped in a chair and an electrode is placed on his arm. The teacher is taken to an adjoining room and instructed to read a series of questions. If the learner gets the answer correct, then they move on to the next word. If the answer is incorrect, the teacher must administer a shock to the learner.
The generator has 30 switches, each labeled with a voltage from 15 up to 450 volts, rated from 'slight shock' to 'danger: severe shock'. The final two switches are labeled 'XXX'. The teacher must increase the shock each time the learner misses a word in the list. In fact, the learner is an actor and does not actually receive a shock."
.Milgram wrote, in the article "The Perils of Obedience":
"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."One of the goals of the experiments was to see if ordinary Americans would obey immoral orders, as many Germans had done during the Nazi period.
"One theoretical interpretation of this behavior holds that all people harbor deeply aggressive instincts continually pressing for expression, and that the experiment provides institutional justification for the release of these impulses. According to this view, if a person is placed in a situation in which he has complete power over another individual, whom he may punish as much as he likes, all that is sadistic and bestial in man comes to the fore."
"This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."
Postscript (from Wikipedia):
"Six years later (during the height of the Vietnam War), one of the participants in the experiment sent correspondence to Milgram, explaining why he was 'glad' to have been involved despite the apparent levels of stress:
'While I was a subject [participant] in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority. ... To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority's demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself. ... I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience...'"
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------Update, Nov 18, 2006:
Google Video appear to have removed the video showing the actual Milgram experiment. There is, though, this one of a Twilight Zone episode. This, apart from the beginning and ends of the episode, is a fairly accurate portrayal of Milgram's experiment: The Twilight Zone - Milgram's Experiment