What was really happening, was that the subjects were subjected to an authority that pressed them to up the voltage higher and higher, while an actor played the victim and complained louder and louder until reaching a point where the victim was silent. The test would continue up to an absurdly high voltage (450 Volts) at which point the experiment was ended. No one was really shocked, but the subject had no way of knowing this.
The consensus across all groups of people (psychiatrists, lay people, students, etc.) was that most people wouldn't go through with this experiment to the end, in fact, most people would quit quite early. The actual results are very frightening: in experiments carried out across the globe, people carried through to the very end 60-85% of the time.
Now I like to think of myself as an independent thinker, and one who lives by his own rules, but I have no idea how I would have actually done in a case like this. (And I can't really take the test now that I know what's being tested.) I'd like to think that I would have quit early.
What I can do however, is make sure my kids grow up strong enough and independent enough that they would do the right thing in a test like this. The article notes that in Germany during WWII, with the concentration camps, the situation had been so compartmentalized that no one was responsible (ultimately) for the execution orders. Bureaucrats just pushed papers around, and the workers pushed buttons on orders from the bureaucrats. As the paper states: The person who assumes responsibility had evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society.
Original article: The Perils Of Obedience