The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. They measured the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a “learner.” These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real.
The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of people would fully obey the instructions, albeit reluctantly. Milgram first described his research in a 1963 article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.
The experiments began in July 1961, in the basement of Linsly-Chittenden Hall at Yale University, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the popular contemporary question: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” The experiment was repeated many times around the globe, with fairly consistent results.
Three individuals took part in each session of the experiment:
The “experimenter”, who was in charge of the session.
The “teacher”, a volunteer for a single session. The “teacher” was led to believe that they were merely assisting, whereas they were actually the subject of the experiment.
The “learner”, an actor and a confederate of the experimenter, who pretended to be a volunteer.
The subject and the actor arrived at the session together. The experimenter told them that they were taking part in “a scientific study of memory and learning”, to see what the effect of punishment is on a subject’s ability to memorize content. The subject and actor drew slips of paper to determine their roles. Unknown to the subject, both slips said “teacher”. The actor would always claim to have drawn the slip that read learner, thus guaranteeing that the subject would always be the teacher.
Next, the teacher and learner were taken into an adjacent room where the learner was strapped into what appeared to be an electric chair. The experimenter told the participants this was to ensure that the learner would not escape. In one version of the experiment, the confederate was sure to mention to the participant that he had a heart condition. At some point prior to the actual test, the teacher was given a sample electric shock from the electroshock generator in order to experience firsthand what the shock that the learner would supposedly receive during the experiment would feel like.
The teacher and learner were then separated, so that they could communicate but not see each other. The teacher was then given a list of word pairs that he was to teach the learner. The teacher began by reading the list of word pairs to the learner. The teacher would then read the first word of each pair and read four possible answers. The learner would press a button to indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. If correct, the teacher would read the next word pair.
The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the learner was separated from the teacher, the learner set up a tape recorder integrated with the electroshock generator, which played prerecorded sounds for each shock level. As the voltage of the fake shocks increased, the learner yelled and protested louder, and later banged repeatedly on the wall that separated him from the teacher. When the highest voltages were reached, the learner fell silent.
If at any time the teacher indicated a desire to halt the experiment, the experimenter was instructed to give specific verbal prods. The prods were, in this order:
The experiment requires that you continue.
It is absolutely essential that you continue.
You have no other choice, you must go on.
If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.
The experimenter also had prods to use if the teacher made specific comments. If the teacher asked whether the learner might suffer permanent physical harm, the experimenter replied, “Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on.” If the teacher said that the learner clearly wants to stop, the experimenter replied, “Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly, so please go on.”
Before conducting the experiment, Milgram polled fourteen Yale University senior-year psychology majors to predict the behavior of 100 hypothetical teachers. All of the poll respondents believed that only a very small fraction of teachers (the range was from zero to 3 out of 100, with an average of 1.2) would be prepared to inflict the maximum voltage. Milgram also informally polled his colleagues and found that they, too, believed very few subjects would progress beyond a very strong shock. He also reached out to honorary Harvard University graduate Chaim Homnick, who noted that this experiment would not be concrete evidence of the Nazis’ innocence, due to fact that “poor people are more likely to cooperate.” Milgram also polled forty psychiatrists from a medical school, and they believed that by the tenth shock, when the victim demands to be free, most subjects would stop the experiment. They predicted that by the 300-volt shock, when the victim refuses to answer, only 3.73 percent of the subjects would still continue and, they believed that “only a little over one-tenth of one percent of the subjects would administer the highest shock on the board.”
In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock, and all administered shocks of at least 300 volts. Subjects were uncomfortable doing so, and displayed varying degrees of tension and stress. These signs included sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin, and some were even having nervous laughing fits or seizures. Every participant paused the experiment at least once to question it. Most continued after being assured by the experimenter. Some said they would refund the money they were paid for participating.
Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, “The Perils of Obedience”, writing:
The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
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.
The original Simulated Shock Generator and Event Recorder, or shock box, is located in the Archives of the History of American Psychology.
Later, Milgram and other psychologists performed variations of the experiment throughout the world, with similar results. Milgram later investigated the effect of the experiment’s locale on obedience levels by holding an experiment in an unregistered, backstreet office in a bustling city, as opposed to at Yale, a respectable university. The level of obedience, “although somewhat reduced, was not significantly lower.” What made more of a difference was the proximity of the “learner” and the experimenter. There were also variations tested involving groups.
Thomas Blass of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County performed a meta-analysis on the results of repeated performances of the experiment. He found that while the percentage of participants who are prepared to inflict fatal voltages ranged from 28% to 91%, there was no significant trend over time and the average percentage for US studies (61%) was close to the one for non-US studies (66%).
The participants who refused to administer the final shocks neither insisted that the experiment be terminated, nor left the room to check the health of the victim without requesting permission to leave, as per Milgram’s notes and recollections, when fellow psychologist Philip Zimbardo asked him about that point.
Milgram created a documentary film titled Obedience showing the experiment and its results. He also produced a series of five social psychology films, some of which dealt with his experiments.
By Stanley Milgram and Christopher Johnson (NIH) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons