Milgram's Experiments Explained

Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) was an American social psychologist. He was best known for his controversial experiment on obedience, which was conducted in the 1960s. He is a very important figure in the history of social psychology.

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The Experiments

Milgram’s experiments began in 1961 to test participants level of obedience with authority figures. Participants in the most famous variation of the experiment were 40 men who were paid $4.50 each. He developed a shock generator, which was very intimidating looking. It had shock levels starting at 30 volts, which increased in 15 volt increments until 450 volts. The switches had different labels, starting at slight shock increasing to danger: severe shock. The final two switches were labeled XXX.

The participants were told that they were playing the role of a teacher who had to deliver shocks to students when they gave incorrect answers. The student was not actually getting shocked, they were playing along for the sake of the experiment, but would yell out in pain. The participant believed that they were delivering real shocks to the student.

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Throughout the experiment, the students would be asked to be released or even complain about a heart condition. The students would bang the wall and demand to be released when the voltage reached 300 volts. After 300 volts, the student would go silent and refuse to answer more questions. The experimenter would then tell the participant to take the silence as incorrect answers and deliver a further shock to the student.

A lot of the participants would ask the experimenter if they should continue. They were prompted by the experimenter with a series of commands to keep the participant going:

"Please continue."

"The experiment requires that you continue."

"It is absolutely essential that you continue."

"You have no other choice; you must go on."


The Results

The experimenter measured obedience by measuring what level of shock the participant was willing to deliver. 65% (26 out of 40) of participants in the study delivered the maximum shock and only 35% stopped before reaching the highest levels. Although many of the participants became extremely agitated, distraught, and angry towards the experimenter, they continued to follow orders through. Due to the amount of anxiety experienced by many of the participants, they were debriefed at the end of the experiment.

Although there have been many critics of the study, the participants were later surveyed: 84% were glad to have participated and only 1% regretted their involvement.


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"The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act."

-Stanley Milgram


The Factors

While these experiments raised serious ethical questions about the use of human subjects in psychology experiments, the results have been replicated in further experiments. This experiment helps us to understand why people perform acts that hurt others when instructed by an authority figure. There are some situational factors to consider within this study:

  • The physical presence of an authority figure drastically increased compliance.

  • The fact that Yale (a trusted and authoritative academic institution) sponsored the study led many participants to believe that the experiment must be safe.

  • The selection of teacher and learner status seemed random.

  • Participants assumed that the experimenter was a competent expert.

  • The shocks were said to be painful, not dangerous.

Milgram conducted later experiments that indicated that the presence of rebellious peers dramatically reduced obedience levels. When other people refused to go along with painful orders, less than 10% of participants refused to deliver the maximum shocks.

These experiments have become a classic in psychology because they demonstrate the dangers of obedience. Situational variables clearly play a larger factor than personality types when determining obedience.


"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."

-Stanley Milgram


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References

1) Haslam S A, Reicher SD. Contesting the "Nature" of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo's Studies Really Show. PLoS Biology. 2012.

2) Miller AG. Reflections on 'Replicating Milgram' (Burger 2009), American Psychologist. 2009;64(1):20-27. 

3) All Things Considered. Taking a Closer Look at Milgram's Shocking Obedience Study. National Public Radio. August 28, 2013.