For Milgram's other well-known experiment, see Small-world experiment.
The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychologyexperiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. They measured the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a "learner". These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real.
The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of people would fully obey the instructions, albeit reluctantly. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.
The experiments began in July 1961, in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden Hall at Yale University, three months after the start of the trial of German Naziwar criminalAdolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the popular contemporary question: "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" The experiments have been repeated many times in the following years with consistent results within differing societies, although not with the same percentages around the globe.
Three individuals took part in each session of the experiment:
- The "experimenter", who was in charge of the session.
- The "teacher", a volunteer for a single session. The "teacher" was led to believe that they were merely assisting, whereas they were actually the subject of the experiment.
- The "learner", an actor and a confederate of the experimenter, who pretended to be a volunteer.
The subject and the actor arrived at the session together. The experimenter told them that they were taking part in "a scientific study of memory and learning", to see what the effect of punishment is on a subject's ability to memorize content. The subject and actor drew slips of paper to determine their roles. Unknown to the subject, both slips said "teacher". The actor would always claim to have drawn the slip that read learner, thus guaranteeing that the subject would always be the teacher.
Next, the teacher and learner were taken into an adjacent room where the learner was strapped into what appeared to be an electric chair. The experimenter told the participants this was to ensure that the learner would not escape. In one version of the experiment, the confederate was sure to mention to the participant that he had a heart condition. At some point prior to the actual test, the teacher was given a sample electric shock from the electroshock generator in order to experience firsthand what the shock that the learner would supposedly receive during the experiment would feel like.
The teacher and learner were then separated, so that they could communicate but not see each other. The teacher was then given a list of word pairs that he was to teach the learner. The teacher began by reading the list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read the first word of each pair and read four possible answers. The learner would press a button to indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. If correct, the teacher would read the next word pair.
The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the learner was separated from the teacher, the learner set up a tape recorder integrated with the electroshock generator, which played prerecorded sounds for each shock level. As the voltage of the fake shocks increased, the learner yelled and protested louder, and later banged repeatedly on the wall that separated him from the teacher. When the highest voltages were reached, the learner fell silent.
If at any time the teacher indicated a desire to halt the experiment, the experimenter was instructed to give specific verbal prods. The prods were, in this order:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.
The experimenter also had prods to use if the teacher made specific comments. If the teacher asked whether the learner might suffer permanent physical harm, the experimenter replied, "Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on." If the teacher said that the learner clearly wants to stop, the experimenter replied, "Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly, so please go on."
Before conducting the experiment, Milgram polled fourteen Yale University senior-year psychology majors to predict the behavior of 100 hypothetical teachers. All of the poll respondents believed that only a very small fraction of teachers (the range was from zero to 3 out of 100, with an average of 1.2) would be prepared to inflict the maximum voltage. Milgram also informally polled his colleagues and found that they, too, believed very few subjects would progress beyond a very strong shock. He also reached out to honorary Harvard University graduate Chaim Homnick, who noted that this experiment would not be concrete evidence of the Nazis' innocence, due to fact that "poor people are more likely to cooperate." Milgram also polled forty psychiatrists from a medical school, and they believed that by the tenth shock, when the victim demands to be free, most subjects would stop the experiment. They predicted that by the 300-volt shock, when the victim refuses to answer, only 3.73 percent of the subjects would still continue and, they believed that "only a little over one-tenth of one percent of the subjects would administer the highest shock on the board."
In Milgram's first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment's final massive 450-volt shock, and all administered shocks of at least 300 volts. Subjects were uncomfortable doing so, and displayed varying degrees of tension and stress. These signs included sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin, and some were even having nervous laughing fits or seizures. Every participant paused the experiment at least once to question it. Most continued after being assured by the experimenter. Some said they would refund the money they were paid for participating.
Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience", writing:
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.
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.
The original Simulated Shock Generator and Event Recorder, or shock box, is located in the Archives of the History of American Psychology.
Later, Milgram and other psychologists performed variations of the experiment throughout the world, with similar results. Milgram later investigated the effect of the experiment's locale on obedience levels by holding an experiment in an unregistered, backstreet office in a bustling city, as opposed to at Yale, a respectable university. The level of obedience, "although somewhat reduced, was not significantly lower." What made more of a difference was the proximity of the "learner" and the experimenter. There were also variations tested involving groups.
Thomas Blass of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County performed a meta-analysis on the results of repeated performances of the experiment. He found that while the percentage of participants who are prepared to inflict fatal voltages ranged from 28% to 91%, there was no significant trend over time and the average percentage for US studies (61%) was close to the one for non-US studies (66%).
The participants who refused to administer the final shocks neither insisted that the experiment be terminated, nor left the room to check the health of the victim without requesting permission to leave, as per Milgram's notes and recollections, when fellow psychologist Philip Zimbardo asked him about that point.
Milgram created a documentary film titled Obedience showing the experiment and its results. He also produced a series of five social psychology films, some of which dealt with his experiments.
The Milgram Shock Experiment raised questions about the research ethics of scientific experimentation because of the extreme emotional stress and inflicted insight suffered by the participants. Some critics such as Gina Perry argued that participants were not properly debriefed. In Milgram's defense, 84 percent of former participants surveyed later said they were "glad" or "very glad" to have participated; 15 percent chose neutral responses (92% of all former participants responding). Many later wrote expressing thanks. Milgram repeatedly received offers of assistance and requests to join his staff from former participants. Six years later (at the height of the Vietnam War), one of the participants in the experiment sent correspondence to Milgram, explaining why he was glad to have participated despite the stress:
While I was a subject 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 ...
In his book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, Milgram argued that the ethical criticism provoked by his experiments was because his findings were disturbing and revealed unwelcome truths about human nature. Others have argued that the ethical debate has diverted attention from more serious problems with the experiment's methodology.
Applicability to the Holocaust
Milgram sparked direct critical response in the scientific community by claiming that "a common psychological process is centrally involved in both [his laboratory experiments and Nazi Germany] events." James Waller, Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College, formerly Chair of Whitworth College Psychology Department, expressed the opinion that Milgram experiments do not correspond well to the Holocaust events:
- The subjects of Milgram experiments, wrote James Waller (Becoming Evil), were assured in advance that no permanent physical damage would result from their actions. However, the Holocaust perpetrators were fully aware of their hands-on killing and maiming of the victims.
- The laboratory subjects themselves did not know their victims and were not motivated by racism or other biases. On the other hand, the Holocaust perpetrators displayed an intense devaluation of the victims through a lifetime of personal development.
- Those serving punishment at the lab were not sadists, nor hate-mongers, and often exhibited great anguish and conflict in the experiment, unlike the designers and executioners of the Final Solution (see Holocaust trials), who had a clear "goal" on their hands, set beforehand.
- The experiment lasted for an hour, with no time for the subjects to contemplate the implications of their behavior. Meanwhile, the Holocaust lasted for years with ample time for a moral assessment of all individuals and organizations involved.
In the opinion of Thomas Blass—who is the author of a scholarly monograph on the experiment (The Man Who Shocked The World) published in 2004—the historical evidence pertaining to actions of the Holocaust perpetrators speaks louder than words:
My own view is that Milgram's approach does not provide a fully adequate explanation of the Holocaust. While it may well account for the dutiful destructiveness of the dispassionate bureaucrat who may have shipped Jews to Auschwitz with the same degree of routinization as potatoes to Bremerhaven, it falls short when one tries to apply it to the more zealous, inventive, and hate-driven atrocities that also characterized the Holocaust.
In 2012, Australian psychologist Gina Perry investigated Milgram's data and writings and concluded that Milgram had manipulated the results, and that there was "troubling mismatch between (published) descriptions of the experiment and evidence of what actually transpired." She wrote that "only half of the people who undertook the experiment fully believed it was real and of those, 66% disobeyed the experimenter".  She described her findings as "an unexpected outcome" that "leaves social psychology in a difficult situation." In the journal Jewish Currents, Joseph Dimow, a participant in the 1961 experiment at Yale University, wrote about his early withdrawal as a "teacher", suspicious "that the whole experiment was designed to see if ordinary Americans would obey immoral orders, as many Germans had done during the Nazi period."
Milgram elaborated two theories:
- The first is the theory of conformism, based on Solomon Asch conformity experiments, describing the fundamental relationship between the group of reference and the individual person. A subject who has neither ability nor expertise to make decisions, especially in a crisis, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy. The group is the person's behavioral model.
- The second is the agentic state theory, wherein, per Milgram, "the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow".
In his book Irrational Exuberance, Yale finance professor Robert Shiller argues that other factors might be partially able to explain the Milgram Experiments:
[People] have learned that when experts tell them something is all right, it probably is, even if it does not seem so. (In fact, it is worth noting that in this case the experimenter was indeed correct: it was all right to continue giving the "shocks"—even though most of the subjects did not suspect the reason.)
In a 2006 experiment, a computerized avatar was used in place of the learner receiving electrical shocks. Although the participants administering the shocks were aware that the learner was unreal, the experimenters reported that participants responded to the situation physiologically "as if it were real".
Another explanation of Milgram's results invokes belief perseverance as the underlying cause. What "people cannot be counted on is to realize that a seemingly benevolent authority is in fact malevolent, even when they are faced with overwhelming evidence which suggests that this authority is indeed malevolent. Hence, the underlying cause for the subjects' striking conduct could well be conceptual, and not the alleged 'capacity of man to abandon his humanity ... as he merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures."'
This last explanation receives some support from a 2009 episode of the BBC science documentary series Horizon, which involved replication of the Milgram experiment. Of the twelve participants, only three refused to continue to the end of the experiment. Speaking during the episode, social psychologist Clifford Stott discussed the influence that the idealism of scientific inquiry had on the volunteers. He remarked: "The influence is ideological. It's about what they believe science to be, that science is a positive product, it produces beneficial findings and knowledge to society that are helpful for society. So there's that sense of science is providing some kind of system for good."
Building on the importance of idealism, some recent researchers suggest the 'engaged followership' perspective. Based on an examination of Milgram's archive, in a recent study, social psychologists Alex Haslam, Stephen Reicher and Megan Birney, at the University of Queensland, discovered that people are less likely to follow the prods of an experimental leader when the prod resembles an order. However, when the prod stresses the importance of the experiment for science (i.e. 'The experiment requires you to continue'), people are more likely to obey. The researchers suggest the perspective of 'engaged followership': that people are not simply obeying the orders of a leader, but instead are willing to continue the experiment because of their desire to support the scientific goals of the leader and because of a lack of identification with the learner. Also a neuroscientific study supports this perspective, namely watching the learner receive electric shocks, does not activate brain regions involving empathic concerns.
Replications and variations
In Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974), Milgram describes nineteen variations of his experiment, some of which had not been previously reported.
Several experiments varied the distance between the participant (teacher) and the learner. Generally, when the participant was physically closer to the learner, the participant's compliance decreased. In the variation where the learner's physical immediacy was closest, where the participant had to hold the learner's arm onto a shock plate, 30 percent of participants completed the experiment. The participant's compliance also decreased if the experimenter was physically further away (Experiments 1–4). For example, in Experiment 2, where participants received telephonic instructions from the experimenter, compliance decreased to 21 percent. Some participants deceived the experimenter by pretending to continue the experiment.
In Experiment 8, an all-female contingent was used; previously, all participants had been men. Obedience did not significantly differ, though the women communicated experiencing higher levels of stress.
Experiment 10 took place in a modest office in Bridgeport, Connecticut, purporting to be the commercial entity "Research Associates of Bridgeport" without apparent connection to Yale University, to eliminate the university's prestige as a possible factor influencing the participants' behavior. In those conditions, obedience dropped to 47.5 percent, though the difference was not statistically significant.
Milgram also combined the effect of authority with that of conformity. In those experiments, the participant was joined by one or two additional "teachers" (also actors, like the "learner"). The behavior of the participants' peers strongly affected the results. In Experiment 17, when two additional teachers refused to comply, only 4 of 40 participants continued in the experiment. In Experiment 18, the participant performed a subsidiary task (reading the questions via microphone or recording the learner's answers) with another "teacher" who complied fully. In that variation, 37 of 40 continued with the experiment.
Around the time of the release of Obedience to Authority in 1973–1974, a version of the experiment was conducted at La Trobe University in Australia. As reported by Perry in her 2012 book Behind the Shock Machine, some of the participants experienced long-lasting psychological effects, possibly due to the lack of proper debriefing by the experimenter.
In 2002, the British artist Rod Dickinson created The Milgram Re-enactment, an exact reconstruction of parts of the original experiment, including the uniforms, lighting, and rooms used. An audience watched the four-hour performance through one-way glass windows. A video of this performance was first shown at the CCA Gallery in Glasgow in 2002.
A partial replication of the experiment was staged by British illusionist Derren Brown and broadcast on UK's Channel 4 in The Heist (2006).
Another partial replication of the experiment was conducted by Jerry M. Burger in 2006 and broadcast on the Primetime series Basic Instincts. Burger noted that "current standards for the ethical treatment of participants clearly place Milgram's studies out of bounds." In 2009, Burger was able to receive approval from the institutional review board by modifying several of the experimental protocols. Burger found obedience rates virtually identical to those reported by Milgram found in 1961–62, even while meeting current ethical regulations of informing participants. In addition, half the replication participants were female, and their rate of obedience was virtually identical to that of the male participants. Burger also included a condition in which participants first saw another participant refuse to continue. However, participants in this condition obeyed at the same rate as participants in the base condition.
In the 2010 French documentary Le Jeu de la Mort (The Game of Death), researchers recreated the Milgram experiment with an added critique of reality television by presenting the scenario as a game show pilot. Volunteers were given €40 and told they would not win any money from the game, as this was only a trial. Only 16 of 80 "contestants" (teachers) chose to end the game before delivering the highest-voltage punishment.
The experiment was performed on Dateline NBC on an episode airing April 25, 2010.
The Discovery Channel aired the "How Evil are You" segment of Curiosity on October 30, 2011. The episode was hosted by Eli Roth, who produced results similar to the original Milgram experiment, though the highest-voltage punishment used was 165 volts, rather than 450 volts.
Due to increasingly widespread knowledge of the experiment, recent replications of the procedure have had to ensure that participants were not previously aware of it.
Charles Sheridan and Richard King (at the University of Missouri and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively) hypothesized that some of Milgram's subjects may have suspected that the victim was faking, so they repeated the experiment with a real victim: a "cute, fluffy puppy" who was given real, albeit apparently harmless, electric shocks. Their findings were similar to those of Milgram: half of the male subjects and all of the females obeyed throughout. Many subjects showed high levels of distress during the experiment, and some openly wept. In addition, Sheridan and King found that the duration for which the shock button was pressed decreased as the shocks got higher, meaning that for higher shock levels, subjects were more hesitant.
- Obedience is a black-and-white film of the experiment, shot by Milgram himself. It is distributed by Alexander Street Press.
- The Tenth Level was a 1975 CBS television film about the experiment, featuring William Shatner and Ossie Davis.
- I as in Icarus is a 1979 French conspiracy thriller with Yves Montand as a lawyer investigating the assassination of the President. The movie is inspired by the Kennedy assassination and the subsequent Warren Commission investigation. Digging into the psychology of the Lee Harvey Oswald type character, the attorney finds out the "decoy shooter" participated in the Milgram experiment. The ongoing experiment is presented to the unsuspecting lawyer.
- Foolin Around is a 1980 movie starring Gary Busey and Annette O'Toole, which uses a Milgram experiment parody in a comedic scene.
- Vaguely referenced at the start of the 1984 film Ghostbusters, character Doctor Peter Venkman gives electric shocks to a male subject while flirting with a female subject. Prior to the shocks both subjects show increased stress, but the male subject ends the experiment early, saying it's "Pissing me off. You can keep the five bucks."
- The track "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" on Peter Gabriel's 1986 album So is a reference to Milgram's Experiment 18, in which 37 of 40 people were prepared to administer the highest level of shock.
- Referenced in Alan Moore's graphic novelV for Vendetta (1988-1989) as a reason why Dr. Surridge has lost faith in humanity.
- Atrocity is a 2005 film re-enactment of the Milgram Experiment.
- The Human Behavior Experiments is a 2006 documentary by Alex Gibney about major experiments in social psychology, shown along with modern incidents highlighting the principles discussed. Along with Stanley Milgram's study in obedience, the documentary shows the diffusion of responsibility study of John Darley and Bibb Latané and the Stanford Prison Experiment of Philip Zimbardo.
- A 2006 Derren Brown special named The Heist repeated the Milgram experiment to test whether the participants will take part in a staged heist afterwards.
- The 2003 Malcolm in the Middle episode "Malcolm Films Reese" features the main character being forced to extract personal secrets from his brother Reese while secretly filming them in a project Malcolm's teacher compares to the Milgram Experiment.
- Chip Kidd's 2008 novel The Learners is about the Milgram experiment and features Stanley Milgram as a character.
- The Milgram Experiment is a 2009 film by the Brothers Gibbs that chronicles the story of Stanley Milgram's experiments.
- The 2008 Dar Williams song "Buzzer" is about the experiment. "I'm feeling sorry for this guy that I pressed to shock / He gets the answers wrong I have to up the watts / And he begged me to stop but they told me to go / I pressed the buzzer."
- "Authority", a 2008 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, features Merrit Rook, a suspect played by Robin Williams, who employs the strip search prank call scam, identifying himself as "Detective Milgram". He later reenacts a version of the Milgram experiment on Det. Elliot Stabler by ordering him to administer electric shocks to Det. Olivia Benson, whom Rook has bound and is thus helpless.
- Episode 114 of the 2009 Howie Mandel show Howie Do It repeated the experiment with a single pair of subjects using the premise of a Japanese game show.
- Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Season 9 Episode 6, April 5, 2010, "Abel & Willing," features Dr. Abel Hazard (Dallas Roberts) who explains the Milgram experiment to a $5000 prostitute he hired for the evening. The original Milgrim documentary film, Obedience, is playing on the TV in the scene.
- The 2010 film Zenith references and dramatically depicts the Milgram experiment
- The 2010 video game Fallout: New Vegas featured a place called "Vault 11,' inspired by the Milgram experiment, which demanded the residents to sacrifice one of their own once a year and told them they would be exterminated if they failed to comply. In addition, lines spoken by the vault’s computer are near-verbatim lines from the experiment urging the player’s compliance.
- The Discovery Channel's Curiosity TV series October 30, 2011 episode, "How Evil Are You?" features Eli Roth recreating the experiment asking the question, "Fifty years later, have we changed?"
- The 2012 film Compliance, written and directed by Craig Zobel, shows a group of employees assisting in the interrogation of a young counter assistant at the commands of a person who claims to be a police officer over the phone, demonstrating the willingness of subjects to follow orders from authority figures.
- The Fox TV series Bones featured a December 4, 2014 episode titled "The Mutilation of the Master Manipulator," where the murder victim, a college psychology professor, is shown administering the Milgram experiment.
- Experimenter, a 2015 film about Milgram, by Michael Almereyda, was screened to favorable reactions at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
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The Milgram Experiment
Saul McLeod published 2007
One of the most famous studies of obedience in psychology was carried out by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University. He conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.
Milgram (1963) examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense often was based on "obedience" - that they were just following orders from their superiors.
The experiments began in July 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised the experiment to answer the question:
Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" (Milgram, 1974).
Milgram (1963) wanted to investigate whether Germans were particularly obedient to authority figures as this was a common explanation for the Nazi killings in World War II. Milgram selected participants for his experiment by newspaper advertising for male participants to take part in a study of learning at Yale University.
The procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher.’ The draw was fixed so that the participant was always the teacher, and the learner was one of Milgram’s confederates (pretending to be a real participant).
The learner (a confederate called Mr. Wallace) was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms, and the teacher and researcher went into a room next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX).
Milgram (1963) was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person.
Stanley Milgram was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities, for example, Germans in WWII.
Volunteers were recruited for a lab experiment investigating “learning” (re: ethics: deception). Participants were 40 males, aged between 20 and 50, whose jobs ranged from unskilled to professional, from the New Haven area. They were paid $4.50 for just turning up.
At the beginning of the experiment, they were introduced to another participant, who was a confederate of the experimenter (Milgram).
They drew straws to determine their roles learner or teacher although this was fixed and the confederate was always the learner. There was also an “experimenter” dressed in a gray lab coat, played by an actor (not Milgram).
Two rooms in the Yale Interaction Laboratory were used - one for the learner (with an electric chair) and another for the teacher and experimenter with an electric shock generator.
The “learner” (Mr. Wallace) was strapped to a chair with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word pairs given him to learn, the "teacher" tests him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices.
The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger severe shock).
The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose), and for each of these, the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock, the experimenter was to give a series of orders/prods to ensure they continued.
There were four prods and if one was not obeyed, then the experimenter (Mr. Williams) read out the next prod, and so on.
Prod 1: Please continue.
Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.
65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e., teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.
Milgram did more than one experiment he carried out 18 variations of his study. All he did was alter the situation (IV) to see how this affected obedience (DV).
Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up.
People tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and/or legally based. This response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations, for example in the family, school, and workplace.
Milgram summed up in the article “The Perils of Obedience” (Milgram 1974), writing:
'The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, 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.'
Milgrams' Agency Theory
Milgram (1974) explained the behavior of his participants by suggesting that people have two states of behavior when they are in a social situation:
- The autonomous state – people direct their own actions, and they take responsibility for the results of those actions.
- The agentic state – people allow others to direct their actions and then pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders. In other words, they act as agents for another person’s will.
Milgram suggested that two things must be in place for a person to enter the agentic state:
- The person giving the orders is perceived as being qualified to direct other people’s behavior. That is, they are seen as legitimate.
- The person being ordered about is able to believe that the authority will accept responsibility for what happens.
Agency theory says that people will obey an authority when they believe that the authority will take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. This is supported by some aspects of Milgram’s evidence.
For example, when participants were reminded that they had responsibility for their own actions, almost none of them were prepared to obey. In contrast, many participants who were refusing to go on did so if the experimenter said that he would take responsibility.
Milgram Experiment Variations
The Milgram experiment was carried out many times whereby Milgram (1965) varied the basic procedure (changed the IV). By doing this Milgram could identify which factors affected obedience (the DV).
Obedience was measured by how many participants shocked to the maximum 450 volts (65% in the original study). In total 636 participants have been tested in 18 different variation studies.
In the original baseline study – the experimenter wore a gray lab coat as a symbol of his authority (a kind of uniform). Milgram carried out a variation in which the experimenter was called away because of a phone call right at the start of the procedure.
The role of the experimenter was then taken over by an ‘ordinary member of the public’ ( a confederate) in everyday clothes rather than a lab coat. The obedience level dropped to 20%.
Change of Location
The experiment was moved to a set of run down offices rather than the impressive Yale University. Obedience dropped to 47.5%. This suggests that status of location effects obedience.
Two Teacher Condition
When participants could instruct an assistant (confederate) to press the switches, 92.5% shocked to the maximum 450 volts. When there is less personal responsibility obedience increases. This relates to Milgram's Agency Theory.
Touch Proximity Condition
The teacher had to force the learner's hand down onto a shock plate when they refuse to participate after 150 volts. Obedience fell to 30%.
The participant is no longer buffered / protected from seeing the consequences of their actions.
Social Support Condition
Two other participants (confederates) were also teachers but refused to obey. Confederate 1 stopped at 150 volts, and confederate 2 stopped at 210 volts.
The presence of others who are seen to disobey the authority figure reduces the level of obedience to 10%.
Absent Experimenter Condition
It is easier to resist the orders from an authority figure if they are not close by. When the experimenter instructed and prompted the teacher by telephone from another room, obedience fell to 20.5%.
Many participants cheated and missed out shocks or gave less voltage than ordered to by the experimenter. The proximity of authority figure affects obedience.
The Milgram studies were conducted in laboratory type conditions, and we must ask if this tells us much about real-life situations. We obey in a variety of real-life situations that are far more subtle than instructions to give people electric shocks, and it would be interesting to see what factors operate in everyday obedience. The sort of situation Milgram investigated would be more suited to a military context.
Orne & Holland (1968) accused Milgram’s study of lacking ‘experimental realism,'’ i.e.,' participants might not have believed the experimental set-up they found themselves in and knew the learner wasn’t receiving electric shocks.
Milgram's sample was biased:
The participants in Milgram's study were all male. Do the findings transfer to females?
Milgram’s study cannot be seen as representative of the American population as his sample was self-selected. This is because they became participants only by electing to respond to a newspaper advertisement (selecting themselves). They may also have a typical "volunteer personality" – not all the newspaper readers responded so perhaps it takes this personality type to do so.
Yet a total of 636 participants were tested in 18 separate experiments across the New Haven area, which was seen as being reasonably representative of a typical American town.
Milgram’s findings have been replicated in a variety of cultures and most lead to the same conclusions as Milgram’s original study and in some cases see higher obedience rates.
However, Smith & Bond (1998) point out that with the exception of Jordan (Shanab & Yahya, 1978), the majority of these studies have been conducted in industrialized Western cultures and we should be cautious before we conclude that a universal trait of social behavior has been identified.
Deception the participants actually believed they were shocking a real person and were unaware the learner was a confederate of Milgram's.
However, Milgram argued that “illusion is used when necessary in order to set the stage for the revelation of certain difficult-to-get-at-truths.”
Milgram also interviewed participants afterward to find out the effect of the deception. Apparently, 83.7% said that they were “glad to be in the experiment,” and 1.3% said that they wished they had not been involved.
Protection of participants - Participants were exposed to extremely stressful situations that may have the potential to cause psychological harm. Many of the participants were visibly distressed.
Signs of tension included trembling, sweating, stuttering, laughing nervously, biting lips and digging fingernails into palms of hands. Three participants had uncontrollable seizures, and many pleaded to be allowed to stop the experiment.
In his defense, Milgram argued that these effects were only short-term. Once the participants were debriefed (and could see the confederate was OK) their stress levels decreased. Milgram also interviewed the participants one year after the event and concluded that most were happy that they had taken part.
However, Milgram did debrief the participants fully after the experiment and also followed up after a period of time to ensure that they came to no harm.
- Right to Withdrawal - The BPS states that researchers should make it plain to participants that they are free to withdraw at any time (regardless of payment).
Milgram debriefed all his participants straight after the experiment and disclosed the true nature of the experiment. Participants were assured that their behavior was common and Milgram also followed the sample up a year later and found that there were no signs of any long-term psychological harm. In fact, the majority of the participants (83.7%) said that they were pleased that they had participated.
Did Milgram give participants an opportunity to withdraw? The experimenter gave four verbal prods which mostly discouraged withdrawal from the experiment:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
Milgram argued that they are justified as the study was about obedience so orders were necessary. Milgram pointed out that although the right to withdraw was made partially difficult, it was possible as 35% of participants had chosen to withdraw.
Milgram (1963) Audio Clips
Below you can also hear some of the audio clips taken from the video that was made of the experiment. Just click on the clips below. You will be asked to decide if you want to open the files from their current location or save them to disk. Choose to open them from their current location. Then press play and sit back and listen!
Clip 1: This is a long audio clip of the 3rd participant administering shocks to the confederate. You can hear the confederate's pleas to be released and the experimenter's instructions to continue.
Clip 2: A short clip of the confederate refusing to continue with the experiment.
Clip 3: The confederate begins to complain of heart trouble.
Clip 4: Listen to the confederate get a shock: "Let me out of here. Let me out, let me out, let me out" And so on!
Clip 5: The experimenter tells the participant that they must continue.
View the complete article as a PDF document
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human relations, 18(1), 57-76.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. Harpercollins.
Orne, M. T., & Holland, C. H. (1968). On the ecological validity of laboratory deceptions. International Journal of Psychiatry, 6(4), 282-293.
Shanab, M. E., & Yahya, K. A. (1978). A cross-cultural study of obedience. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society.
Smith, P. B., & Bond, M. H. (1998). Social psychology across cultures (2nd Edition). Prentice Hall.
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2007). The Milgram experiment. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html