This relatively long article of Michael Mosley mentions this scenario (see beneath) which I haven’t heard of before:
“He arranged for 22 nurses working in a large hospital to be rung, separately, by a man simply calling himself, “Dr Smith”. Dr Smith told each of the nurses that he wanted them to give 20mg of a drug called Astroten to a patient, who he named. Dr Smith also told the nurses that he was on his way to the hospital and would sign the necessary paperwork when he arrived.
The drug, an invention of the experimenters, had been placed in the drug cabinet several days before the telephone call with a prominent warning on its side that 10mg was the maximum safe dose. Despite this, and despite the fact that hospital protocol specifically stated that no drug should ever be administered based solely on a phone call, 21 out of the 22 nurses were preparing to give the 20mg dose when they were stopped. The nurses had bowed to the imagined authority of the “doctor”.
People obviously knew, long before Milgram and Hofling did their experiments, that humans have a tendency to blindly follow orders, if they are presented in a plausible fashion by someone who is apparently in authority. What these experiments revealed was just how strong this “tendency” really is. Psychology, which is often criticised for discovering the bleeding obvious, had shown that it was capable of making surprising, original, disturbing contributions to our understanding of ourselves.”
“Milgram went with his students on to the New York subway. Their task was to approach passengers on the train and say, pleasantly: “I’d like your seat, please”. As Milgram pointed out beforehand, “if you ask a New Yorker if he would give up his seat to a man who gives no reason for asking, he would say ‘never’. But what would he really do?” The answer was that in just over half of all cases people gave up their seats when asked.
Recently I decided to repeat this experiment in a busy London shopping centre, with similar results. I was surprised by how many people complied with my completely unreasonable request, but even more surprised by how uncomfortable I found asking them to do it, something Milgram also discovered.
“I was about to say the words ‘excuse me, sir, may I have your seat,’ but I found something very interesting, there was an enormous inhibition, the words wouldn’t come out, I simply couldn’t utter them, there was this terrible restraint against saying this phrase.”
Although it was unexpected, Milgram thought that this was a hugely significant finding. He had found through his own personal experience just how important feeling socially awkward is when it comes to modifying behaviour. We don’t like breaking the social rules – whether it’s asking for somebody’s seat, or disobeying the instructions of somebody whose authority we have accepted.
In everyday situations there is an implicit set of rules of who is in charge and if we violate these rules it leads to feelings of embarrassment and awkwardness so intense we prefer to accept the submissive role the occasion requires. It is a terrible critique of human behaviour that we would rather let something terrible happen than act in a socially embarrassing manner. Yet it helps explain some of the chilling crimes you read about when someone is attacked, even murdered, in a public place and no one intervenes.”