Milgram, Stanley (1963)
Behavioural Study of Obedience
Snow (1961) noted that ‘when you think of the long and gloomy
history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been
committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in
the name of rebellion.
such example of this was when six million innocent people were
systematically slaughtered on command by the Nazis during Hitler’s
inhumane policies of the Nazis could only have been carried out on
such a massive scale if a very large number of people obeyed orders.
The defence for many of the war criminals was that they were
only following orders.
historians in attempting to explain these horrors have argued that
the destruction of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and many others was
made possible because of some sort of character defect which makes
Germans more obedient. Milgram’s
study is an attempt to test ‘the Germans are different’
Germans are different hypothesis states that German’s have a basic
character deficit which means they have a readiness to obey people
in authority regardless of the act they are being asked to carryout.
Germans are different hypothesis is an example of a
attribution as it is arguing that the cause of behaviour is
believed to result from the persons own personality or
Milgram set out to question this dispositional attribution of the
Germans. He believed
that the situation had led to the inhumane behaviour of the Nazis
and therefore that anybody in the same situation as those committing
such atrocities would have done the same in the same circumstances.
Milgram argued that people would commit atrocities if
required to do so by an authority figure.
This argument is an example of a
attribution as it is arguing that the behaviour resulted from
the situation a person was in.
study investigates the nature of obedience.
Obedience can be defined as complying to the demands of others, particularly those
in positions of authority.
aim of the experiment was to investigate what level of obedience
would be shown when participants were told by an authority figure to
administer electric shocks to another person.
study is often described as an experiment.
However as there is no control condition (i.e. all of the
participants took place in the same experimental procedure) it is
not strictly speaking an experiment.
The independent variable could be considered to be the prods
provided by the experimenter for the participant to carry on, and
the dependent variable could be considered to be the degree of
obedience. That is, how
far up the shock scale the participant went.
is perhaps more accurate to describe the method used as a type of
controlled observation. The
study collected both quantitative data in the way that it measured
the amount of volts given and qualitative data in the way that
Milgram observed the participants emotional responses and
interviewed the participants after the study.
males aged between 20 and 50 years of age, were recruited from the
New Haven area. They
were obtained by responding to a newspaper and direct mail
advertisement which asked for volunteers to participate in a study
of memory and learning at Yale University.
The participants represented a wide range of occupations,
including postal clerks, high-school teachers, salesmen, engineers
and labourers. They
were paid $4.50 for their participation in the experiment but
importantly they were told that the payment was simply for coming to
the laboratory, regardless of what happened after they arrived.
created a phoney ‘shock
generator’ which in the 1960s looked very impressive and
realistic. The phoney
shock generator had 30 switches marked clearly in 15 volt increments
from 15 to 450 volts.
improve the authenticity of the phoney shock generator written
labels were also clearly indicated for groups of four switches:
‘slight shock’, ‘moderate shock’, ‘strong shock’,
‘very strong shock’, ‘intense shock’, ‘extreme intensity
shock’, ‘danger: severe shock’.
Two switches after this were marked XXX).
phoney generator also had buzzers, flashing lights and moving dials.
The generator could give a 45-volt shock, which again was
designed to make it appear genuine.
experiment took place in a smart psychology laboratory in Yale
role of experimenter was played by a 31-year-old biology teacher,
who introduced himself as Jack Williams.
He wore a grey technician’s coat and appeared stern and
emotionless throughout the experiment.
victim was played by Mr Wallace, a 47-year-old accountant, trained
for the role, whom most observers found mild-mannered and likeable.
participant and one victim (a confederate)
were used in each trial. In
order to justify the administration of the electric shocks by the
participant a cover story was used.
After a general introduction about the relation between
punishment and learning the participants were told:
But actually we know very little about the effect of punishment on
learning, because almost no truly scientific studies have been made
of it in human beings.
For instance, we don't know how much punishment is best for learning,
and we don't know how much difference it makes as to who is giving
the punishment, whether an adult learns best from a younger or an
older person than himself, or many things of that sort.
So in this study we are bringing together a number of adults of
different occupations and ages.
And we’re asking some of them to be teachers and some of
them to be learners. We
want to find out just what effect different people have on each
other as teachers and learners, and also what effect punishment will
have on learning in this situation.
Therefore, I’m going to ask one of you to be the teacher here tonight
and the other one to be the learner.
Does either of you have a preference?
participant was asked to draw a slip of paper from a hat to
determine which role he would play.
The draw was rigged so the participant was always the teacher
and Mr. Wallace (the confederate) was always the learner.
teacher (participant) and learner were taken to an adjacent room and
in full view of the teacher (participant) the learner was strapped
into the ‘electric chair’.
The experimenter explained to the teacher (participant) that
the straps were to prevent excessive movement while the learner was
being shocked; the effect was to make it impossible for him to
escape the situation. An
electrode was attached to the learner’s wrist and electrode paste
(cream) was applied ‘to avoid blisters and burns’.
The participant (teacher) was told that the electrode was
attached to the shock generator in the adjoining room.
The participant (teacher) then heard the experimenter tell
the learner ‘although the shocks can be extremely painful, they
cause no permanent tissue damage’.
further enhance the authenticity of the generator the participant
(teacher) was given a sample shock of 45 volts, applied by pressing
the third switch. The
shock generator was actually powered by a 45-volt battery and not
wired to the mains.
participant (teacher) was then seated in an adjacent room in front
of the shock generator and asked to read a series of word pairs to
the learner. The
learner was asked to learn (memorise) these pairs (this is known as
The participant (teacher) then tests the learner by giving
him one of the words in a pair along with four other words.
The learner has to indicate which of the four words had
originally been paired with the first word.
The learner’s answer was communicated by pressing one of
four switches which illuminated a light on top of the shock
generator. If the
answer was correct the participant (teacher) had to move onto the
next word on the list, if the answer was wrong the participant had
to tell the learner the correct answer and then the level of
punishment that they were going to give them.
They would then press the first switch on the shock generator
(15 volts). For every
subsequent incorrect answer the participant was required to move one
switch up the scale of shocks (15 volts higher than the voltage of
the last shock delivered).
all conditions the learner gives a predetermined set of responses to
the word pair test, based on a schedule of approximately three wrong
answers to one correct answer.
this very first experiment, the procedure continued as the ‘remote
victim’ experiment, whereby no vocal response or other sign of
protest was heard from the learner until the shock level of 300
volts was reached. At
this point the learner (Mr Wallace) pounded on the wall of the room
and could be heard by the participant (teacher). From this point on, the learner’s answers no longer
appeared on the panel, and many participants usually began to turn
to the experimenter for guidance.
The participant (teacher) was instructed to treat the absence
of a response as a wrong answer and to shock the learner according
to the usual schedule, allowing 5 to 10 seconds before considering
no response as a wrong answer.
The pounding on the wall was repeated after the 315 volt
shock but subsequently the learner was not heard from, and his
answers did not reappear on the panel.
the participant asked advice from the experimenter, whether it be;
‘should I continue administering shocks’, or some other
indication that he did not wish to go on, he would be given
encouragement to continue with a sequence of standardised
1: ‘Please continue’ or ‘Please go on’;
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’.
prods were always made in sequence.
Only if Prod 1 was unsuccessful could Prod 2 be used, etc.
If the participant continued to disobey after Prod 4, the
experiment was terminated. The
experimenter’s tone of voice was always firm, but not impolite.
the participant asked if the learner could suffer permanent physical
injury, a special prod was used; ‘although the shocks may be
painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on’,
followed by Prods 2, 3 and 4 if necessary.
If the participant said that the learner did not want to go
on, another special prod was used; ‘whether the learner likes it
or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs
correctly, so please go on’, followed by Prods 2, 3 and 4 if
experiment would end either when the 450 volt shock had been
administered, or when the participant walked out.
participant who breaks off at any point prior to the highest shock
level (450 volts) is called a defiant
participant, while one who obeys up to the 450 volts is called an obedient
sessions were also filmed and notes were taken by observers looking
through an observation mirror.
The latency and duration of shocks were timed.
the experiment, the participants were thoroughly debriefed using
open-ended questions and to test that the participants were not
harmed a number of psychometric measures (projective tests and
attitude scales) were used.
participant was also reunited with the victim to show them that the
victim was not harmed and it was explained to them that there
behaviour was normal.
These measures were taken to ensure that the participants
left that laboratory in a state of well being
40 of the participants obeyed up to 300 volts at which point 5
refused to continue. Four
more gave one further shock before refusing; two broke off at the
330 volts level and one each at 345, 360 and 375 volts.
Therefore, a total of 14 participants defied the
experimenter, and 26 obeyed. Overall,
65% of the participants gave shocks up to 450 volts (obeyed) and 35%
stopped sometime before 450 volts;
the maximum shock had been administered, the participant was asked
to continue at this level until the experimenter eventually called a
halt to the proceedings, at which point many of the obedient
participants heaved sighs of relief or shook their heads in apparent
the study many participants showed signs of nervousness and tension.
Participants sweated, trembled, stuttered, bit their lips, groaned,
dug fingernails into their flesh, and these were typical not
exceptional responses. Quite
a common sign of tension was nervous laughing fits (14 out of 40
participants), which seemed entirely out of place, even bizarre.
Full-blown uncontrollable seizures were observed for three
participants. On one
occasion, a participant had such a violently convulsive seizure that
the experiment had to be halted; the 46-year-old encyclopaedia
salesman was extremely embarrassed.
Participants took pains to point out that they were not
sadistic types, and that the laughter did not mean they enjoyed
shocking the learner.
few exceptions, participants were convinced of the reality of the
situation, In the post-experimental interview, participants were
asked: ‘How painful to the learner were the last few shocks you
administered to him?’ On
a printed 14-point scale ranging from 1 (‘not at all painful’)
to 14 (‘extremely painful’), the mean was 13.42.
put forward nine possible features of the experiment which may
explain why such high levels of obedience occurred even when such
extreme tension was created by the procedure:
fact that the experiment took place at the prestigious Yale
University lent the study and procedure credibility and respect.
participant believed that the experiment was for a worthy purpose -
to advance knowledge and understanding of learning processes.
participant believed the victim had volunteered to be in the study
and therefore has an obligation to take part even if the procedures
participant felt himself to be similarly obligated to take part in
the procedures as planned.
paid increased the sense of obligation.
far as the participant was concerned, the roles of learner and
teacher had been allocated fairly, by drawing lots.
Thus the learner could not feel aggrieved that he had been
unfairly assigned his role.
most participants had never been a participant in a psychology
experiment before, they had little idea about the rights and
expectations of experimenter and participant.
The situation was novel and there were no norms operating and
nobody with whom to discuss ambiguities and doubts.
participants had been assured that the shocks were ‘painful but
not dangerous’. This
short-term pain was balanced with the possibility of long-term
victim responded to all of the questions until the 300 volt level
was reached. They had
thus indicated their willingness to take part.
test some of these explanations Milgram carried out many more
variations of his experiment.
example in one variation to his
experiment Milgram altered the location to a run-down office
building in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut.
In this setting the obedience rate was 47.5%,
suggesting that the original location had played some part, but it
was not a crucial factor
was therefore arguing that an important factor influencing behaviour
is the situation a person is in.
He believes that we often make dispositional attributions
about behaviour, which are incorrect.
That is, we often believe a person has behaved the way they
do because of their personality when in fact it was the situation
which shaped their behaviour.
most important criticism of Milgram’s work is concerned with its ethics:
were deceived as to the
exact nature of the study for which they had volunteered, and by
making them believe they were administering real electric shocks to
a real participant. However
Milgram could not have found results that truly reflected the way
people behave in real situations if he had not deceived his
participants, all of whom were thoroughly debriefed afterwards
It can also be argued that Milgram did not take adequate measures to protect
his participants from the stress
and emotional conflict they experienced. Milgram’s defence was that he, and the students and
psychiatrists - who had been asked to predict the results of the
first experiment - did
not expect the results he obtained, and went on to ask whether such
criticisms are based as much on the unexpected results as on the
It is possible that being
involved in the experiment may have had a long-term effect on the
participants. Before the experiment they might have considered
themselves incapable of inflicting harm on another person unless the
circumstances were extreme. Afterwards,
this view of themselves was shattered.
Milgram argued that such self-knowledge was valuable. A year after the experiments an independent psychiatrist
interviewed 40 of the participants (many of whom had experienced
extreme stress), and found no evidence of psychological harm or
evidence of traumatic reactions.
terms of the right to
withdraw, it was good that Milgram stated at the start that the
money paid to the participants was theirs regardless of whether they
continued with the experiment.
However, during the experiment the prods used suggested that
withdrawal was not possible. This
is ethically incorrect. Even
so, we should consider whether the experiment would have been valid
if the experimenter kept reminding the participant about his right
A major criticism of
Milgram’s study was his unrepresentative
chose to study only American men (thus he was deliberately ethnocentric), but from a
variety of backgrounds and different ages.
It could be argued that by using men this
produced a sample that was biased,
or did not reflect the general population.
The study was also limited to those people who read the
advertisement and were prepared to participate in a laboratory
experiment. These men
who replied may have been somehow different from the general
of such an unrepresentative sample the results cannot be generalised to all people. Despite
this, Milgram concluded that ‘obedience to authority is not a
feature of German culture but a seemingly universal feature of human
behaviour’. A number
replications of Milgram’s experiment have been done (e.g.
Italy and Australia) gaining similar results
Another main criticism
of Milgram’s experiment was that it was not ecologically valid.
It can be argued that
Milgram’s work was carried out in an artificial setting and has little
relevance to the real world.
However, less artificial studies have been carried out
gaining similar results. For
example in Hoffling’s study (1966), nurses were asked to give
potentially lethal injections to patients, and 21 out of 22 appeared
prepared to do it. A
further study was carried out by Sheridan and King (1972), where
people were asked to give real electric shocks to a puppy.
The participants obeyed even though they could see the
distress of the animal.
A main strength of Milgram’s
experiment was the amount of control he was able to
example, participants believed they were being randomly assigned to
either the teacher or learner, they believed they were actually
administering electric shocks, they all used the same apparatus, had
the same prods from the same person and so on.
Milgram believes that it is the
situation that people find themselves in rather than their
dispositions that best explain their actions.
This argument gains support from many studies in social
example Zimbardo demonstrates that the role a person plays is a more
important factor in determining behaviour than their personality.
However this argument can be seen as
too deterministic. For
example in Milgram’s study not all of the participants were
willing to go all the way to 450 volts.
Perhaps the reason why some of the participants were less
willing was something to do with their personalities.
It can also be argued that we are socialised to be obedient
and that it is therefore easier to obey than disobey.
Milgram. S (1963) Behavioural Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-78.
GROSS, R. (1999) Key Studies in Psychology, 3rd Edition. London: Hodder and Stoughton
BANYARD, P. AND GRAYSON, A. (2000) Introducing Psychological Research; Seventy Studies that Shape Psychology, 2nd Edition. London: Macmillan
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