Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Study

Stanley Milgram is perhaps most well-known for his famous, yet extremely controversial, experiment on obedience. Milgram was fascinated by the effect that authority had on obedience, and believed that people would nearly always obey orders out of a desire to seem cooperative or out of fear, even if this meant going against their better judgment or desires.

Fitting Milgram’s Experiment in History

Milgram began his obedience experiment in 1961. Shortly before, the world had been captivated by the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who, among other things, was charged with ordering the deaths of millions of Jews. Eichmann’s defense in the case was that he was just following instructions.

Milgram conducted the experiment at Yale University, where he recruited forty men through newspaper ads. The participants were informed (falsely) that the study they were joining was focused on memory and learning. They were told that one person would take on the role of teacher and the other would take on the role of student, and that these roles would be chosen randomly. Each participant drew a supposedly random slip of paper. In reality, however, all of the papers said “teacher” on them. The only “students” were actor accomplices of Milgram’s. Thus, all of the unknowing participants were intentionally given the role of the teacher, while believing it to be a random assignment.

Milgram's Experiment

Step 1

Each participant “teacher” is paired with one of the accomplice “students.” The teacher watches as the student is strapped to a chair and has electrodes attached to him by laboratory assistants.

Step 2

Following this, the teacher is then brought into a separate room, where he can still communicate with the student, but they cannot see each other. The teacher is placed in front of a “shock generator” that starts at 30 volts and increases—in increments of 15 volts—all the way to 450 volts. The switches are labeled “Moderate,” which is 75–120 volts; “Strong,” which is 135–180 volts; “Danger: Severe Shock,” which is 375–420 volts; and the two highest levels are labeled “XXX.” The “shock generator” does not produce actual shocks, but rather makes a noise when switches are pressed.

Step 3

The teacher is told that he will teach word pairs to the student and that if the student makes a mistake, the teacher will punish the student by administering a shock. For every mistake made, the teacher must administer a shock 15 volts higher than the last. To show that the experiment is real, the teacher is given a 15-volt shock. This is the only real shock administered in the entire test.

Step 4

The word pairings begin, and the student will eventually begin to make planned errors. At each error, the teacher increases the voltage of the shock that he gives to the student. When the fake shocks reach 75 volts, the “student” will grunt. At 120 volts, the student will complain that the shocks are painful. At 150 volts, the student will scream that he wants to be released. The student will then plead more and more as the shocks are “administered” and complain that he suers from a heart condition.

Step 5

If at any time the teacher questions the process, the experimenter will tell him things like “please continue,” “it is absolutely essential that you continue,” “the experiment requires that you continue,” or “you have no other choice, you must go on.”

Step 6

At 300 volts, the student pounds on the walls and exclaims that he can’t stand the pain. At 330 volts, the student remains quiet. The experimenter informs the teacher that a lack of response is a wrong answer, and that he has to shock the student.

Step 7

The experiment ends when the highest level on the shock generator is reached.

Milgram's Findings

Milgram asked a group of Yale students to predict how many people they thought would administer the maximum shock level, and they estimated three out of 100 people would do it. Surprisingly, Milgram found that 65 percent of the participants in his study administered shock levels of 450 volts! While people did show signs of internal struggle through groaning, nervous laughter, and trembling, most of them obeyed the experimenter’s request to continue with the experiment. When interviewed after the experiment, Milgram asked the participants to rate how painful they believed the shocks actually were, and “extremely painful” was the typical answer. Milgram even found that the participants—in an effort to justify their behavior—devalued the student during the experiment, saying the student was so dumb that he actually deserved the shock. Milgram was able to successfully show that under certain circumstances, everyday people who are considered “normal” have the capability to cause intense pain and suffering. Milgram was able to explain such high levels of obedience in the following ways: 

  • Compliance was increased because of the physical presence of an authority figure (the experimenter)
  • Many participants believed the experiment was safe because it was sponsored by Yale
  • The selection process of who would be teacher and who would be student seemed random
  • It was assumed that the experimenter was a competent expert
  • The participants were told the shocks were painful but not dangerous

Ethical Concerns

Milgram’s obedience study drew fierce criticism regarding its ethical procedure. The subjects involved in the study were led to believe that they were causing pain to another person when, in reality, they were being duped by an actor pretending to be in pain. The experiment caused great stress to the subjects, and the fact that they believed they were hurting a complete stranger could have traumatized them.