Milgram's obedience study

From RationalWiki
Jump to: navigation, search
Tell me about
your mother


Icon psychology.svg
For our next session...
Popping into your mind

The Milgram experiment was one of the most seminal experiments in all of psychology and specifically in social psychology. It was performed by Stanley Milgram at Yale University and the results were published in 1963[1]. The study focused on obedience to authority and showed that people were willing to perform dangerous and even deadly actions against other people under instruction from an authority figure.

Milgram wanted to address issues that were central to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal. Eichmann insisted throughout his trial that he was "only following orders". Milgram asked the question: "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?"[2] Milgram recruited 40 men between 20 and 50 to participate in an experiment that would test their willingness to harm another person while "only following orders".


The set-up

The subject was brought into the room and met with another individual they were told was also a volunteer (in actuality it was someone working for the experiment, a confederate). The researcher told both participants they would be participating in an experiment that would test punishment's effects on learning.

Then the researcher presented the subject and the confederate each with a piece of paper, which they were told would either say teacher or learner. The subject thought there was a 50 percent chance he would be one or the other, but in reality the subject was always the teacher and the confederate always the learner. Afterwards, the confederate went behind a wall and the subject sat at a desk with what looked like an electric-shock generator.

The subject was given a list of words that were paired together. He was instructed to read the word pairs to the other individual and then say the first word and ask what word was paired with it. The subject gave four possible answers and the learner would push a button that would light up in front of the teacher to signify the answer. The teacher was then supposed to give a shock if the answer was wrong, or move on to the next word if correct. For each wrong answer the shock voltage would be turned up a notch.

The subject was under the impression a real electric shock was given each time. But in reality no shock was ever administered. Instead the activating of the "electric-shock generator" would play a clip from an audio tape that gave more and more distraught responses. The confederate would, after a few shocks, pound on the wall and complain about a heart condition. A few shocks later the confederate would cease all communications.

At various times the subject was likely to protest to the researcher about the experiment, the purpose, or the dangers to the other individual. At any time the researcher would simply offer only one of these responses:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wanted to stop the experiment after all four verbal prods then it would be stopped. If the subject did not stop, the experiment would end after the maximum voltage of 450 volts was administered for the third time. [3]

Stop reading for a minute[edit]

If you are not familiar with this study, stop for a minute and honestly ask yourself how far you would have gone with the experiment. When would you have stopped? Would you have gone all the way? Now ask yourself how many people you think went all the way. Remember that these are just normal people; how many would you expect to obey?


Many people when they first hear about the outline of the experiment often predict only a few people will proceed to the maximum voltage. In fact, Milgram asked 19 psychology majors before the experiment what they thought would happen. The average was that barely over one percent would go all the way.

The results are often surprising the first time you see them: 26 out of the 40 participants (65 percent) administered the full shock, and not a single subject stopped before 300 volts.[4] All the subjects, at one point at least, expressed concern, many offering to give back their compensation if they could quit, but with the single sentence prod from the researcher they continued.[5]

Several other studies have replicated Milgram's work, with a similar percentage of individuals that are willing to deliver a fatal shock.[6]

Reactions and criticisms[edit]

By today's standards such an experiment would never receive ethical approval. The emotional distress caused to the subject would be viewed as too severe. Also the debriefing done after the experiment was not adequate by modern standards.[7] However, all the participants in Milgram's study were polled at a later date and after disclosure and asked about how they felt about participating. Only 2 percent of subjects were sorry about participating in the test with those who were most obedient being the most glad.[8].

The interpretations of the results and the ethical dilemmas surrounding it were instantly a hot topic. To this day psychology courses across the world focus on Milgram's work. Variations of the obedience study were carried out, both by Milgram and others. Milgram found that participants were less willing to inflict pain when the 'victim' was immediately in front of them, unlike in the original experiment where a wall separated them, and were also less willing when the experimenter (as authority figure) was outside the room. In some of Milgram's variants, the subject was accompanied by other "teachers" (ostensibly also subjects but actually actors). The subjects proved to be highly influenced by these additional participants: if they expressed reluctance to continue, the subject would also desist. This suggests that the willingness to commit cruelty is affected by conformity as well as authority.[9]

To eliminate the possibility that subjects might have seen through the deception, a similar experiment was conducted by Charles Sheridan and Richard King in 1972, in which the subject instead administered genuine electric shocks to a puppy. The result was similar: 20 out of 26 subjects continued to the end, despite some being severely distressed by the pain they were causing.[10] An infamous "Prisoners and Guards" experiment (1971) demonstrated the serious problems destructive obedience can cause, decades before Abu Ghraib.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]