Milgram's obedience study

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The Milgram experiment was one of the most seminal sets of experiments in all of psychology and specifically in social psychology. The experiments were performed by Stanley Milgram (1933–1984) of Yale University. The set of 23 experiments were performed in New Haven, Connecticut between 1961-1962, and the results were published in 1963.[1][2] The study focused on obedience to authority and reported results that 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?"[3] 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, showing the Experimenter (E), Teacher (T), and Learner (L).

In the most widely reported of the experiments,[2] a subject was brought into the room and met with another individual they were told was also a volunteer (in actuality, it was an accomplice of the researcher, known in such experiments as a confederate). The researcher, cast as the "Experimenter" and dressed in a lab coat, told both participants they would be participating in an experiment that would test punishment's effects on learning.

Then the Experimenter 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% 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 Learner went behind a wall and the Teacher sat at a desk with a device that included a bank of switches, which he was informed was an electric-shock generator.

The Teacher was given a list of words that were paired together. He was instructed to read the word pairs to the Learner and then say the first word and ask what word was paired with it. The Teacher gave four possible answers and the Learner would push a button that would light up a panel 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. The "shocks" were applied using a device with a bank of switches on a marked scale with notes at 15V ("slight shock"), 375V ("Danger"), and 450V (only marked "XXX"). For each incorrect answer, the Teacher would increase the voltage by flipping the next switch.

The Teacher was under the impression that a real electric shock was given each time, but no shock was ever truly 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 Learner would, after a few shocks, pound on the wall and complain about a heart condition. A few shocks later, the Learner would cease all communications.

At various times, the Teacher was likely to protest to the Experimenter about the experiment or the dangers to the Learner. At any time, the Experimenter would simply offer only one of these responses, with emphasis:

  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 Teacher still wanted to stop the experiment after all four verbal prods, then it would be stopped. If the Teacher did not stop, the experiment would end after the maximum voltage of 450 volts was administered for the third time.[4]

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 1% would go all the way.

The results are often surprising the first time you see them: 26 out of the 40 participants (65%) 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 (Teacher) would be viewed as too severe, and the debriefing given after the original experiment was not adequate by modern standards.[7] However, all the participants in Milgram's study were polled at a date following the experiment and asked about how they felt about participating. Only 2% 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]

The use of a grey lab coat by the experimenter, interpreted as a badge of authority by the subjects, was shown to be critical: in one of the repeat experiments, the lab-coated Experimenter was called away at the beginning of the test, and a supervisor in plain clothes, introduced as an ordinary member of the public, was brought in instead. The rate at which subjects delivered lethal shocks dropped to 20% in this test.[4]

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]

Modern reanalysis[edit]

Although Milgram's experiments have been confirmed in different ways, their interpretation has changed over time, particularly with regard to the Rwandan Genocide, for which there is an enormous amount of data. In the case of the Rwandan Genocide, those individuals who did the most killing were ideologically-motivated, while those who committed fewer acts of violence were motivated by "fear, greed, family and friend influences".[2][11] The Milgram experiments did agree with the analysis of the Rwandan genocide, but not in the reported "blindly obeying orders" sense:[2] Participants in the Milgram study were most compliant when an experimenter encouraged them to continue shocking for the sake of the experiment (by saying, 'The experiment requires that you continue'), the psychologists add. Participants never followed the order: 'You have no choice, you must continue.' In other words, those identifying with the experiment's purpose ("ideology") were more likely to shock until the end; participants were not motivated by "just following orders".[2]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Behavioral study of obedience by Stanley Milgram, (1963) Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378. doi:10.1037/h0040525.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 A look at the Rwanda’s genocide helps explain why ordinary people kill their neighbors: Rather than blindly obeying orders, perpetrators felt a sense of duty by Bruce Bower (3:00pm, August 8, 2017) Science News.
  3. Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View by Stanley Milgram, (1974) Harpercollins. ISBN 006131983X.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 The Milgram Shock Experiment by Saul McLeod (updated 2017) Simply Psychology.
  5. Milgram's Experiment on Obedience to Authority by Gregorio Billikopf (2014) Party-Directed Mediation: Facilitating Dialogue Between, 3rd edition. University of California.
  6. More shocking results: New research replicates Milgram's findings by K. I. Mills (2009) Monitor on Psychology 40(3):13.
  7. Milgram Experiment Ethics by Martyn Shuttleworth (Jul 4, 2008)
  8. Section: "Obedience: Milgram (1963)" by Russell A. Dewey (2017-2018) In: Psychology: An Introduction, Chapter 15: Social Psychology.
  9. Obedience to authority PsychTeacher (UK) (archived from November 17, 2013).
  10. Obedience to authority with an authentic victim by Charles L. Sheridan & Richard G. King (1972) Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association 7(Pt. 1):165–166.
  11. 50 Years of “Obedience to Authority”: From Blind Conformity to Engaged Followership by S. Alexander Haslam & Stephen D. Reicher (November 2017) Annual Review of Law and Social Science vol. 13