Real Studies: “Milgram Obedience Study”, 1963.

March 10, 2010 at 4:00 pm 2 comments

A Psychologist called Stanley Milgram wanted to understand what caused ordinary German soldiers and officers to commit horrific deeds, such as the holocaust. He suggested that the reason they did was because they were following orders and obeying authority, despite the conflict with their actual moral beliefs.

What did he do?
His first study actually took place in 1961 (the Journal with the study was not published for two years).
He advertised in newspapers for participants asking for anyone between 20-50 years old to apply to take part in his experiment. To see the actual ad he used, click the following link: .

The experiment took part in Yale University. What did he actually do though?

The participant would arrive, and be greeted by the experimenter and another “participant”. Little did they realise, the other participant was actually a stooge – that is, someone who was “in on the experiment”, as it were. He was asked to draw a piece of paper, one said “learner” and one said “teacher”. At least that’s what they believed. Both pieces of paper said “teacher”, so no matter what they picked, they would always end up as a teacher. The stooge just had to pretend they had drawn the “learner” paper. They would be briefed; it would be explained that the experiment is about punishment’s effects on learning. The learner would be asked to learn a series of word combinations. If the learner was correct, they would move on. If the learner answered incorrectly, increasingly strong electrical shocks would be administered to the learner from the teacher each time. The experimenter would merely observe.

Of course, the experiment was not to observe the effect of punishment on learning; the participant could not know this, or else the experiment would be meaningless.

The participant and stooge would then be escorted to a room with a machine in it. The experimenter explained that the machine administered electrical shocks. To prove it, he let the ‘teacher’ strap his hand in, and shocked him (the voltage was very low – only 15V). After the ‘teacher’ had felt the shock, the ‘learner’ was strapped in. The experimenter then escorted the teacher out of the room and into an adjacent room (the teacher CANNOT see the learner at any point during the experiment for here on). They were shown the following machine:

The Milgram ('63) Shock Generator

The teacher firstly read all the word pairs out to the learner, so they could “learn” them. After, they read the questions to the participant through a microphone. 4 possible answers would also be given. The learner had to match words in correct pairs, for example:

Teacher: “Bird.       a) wing   b) sparrow  c) flight   d) blue

The learner would press a button on a pad in his room – a, b, c or d. The response would be shown to the teacher. If the learner was correct, the next word would be read out. If he was wrong, an electrical shock would be administered. The row of toggles at the bottom of the machine correspond to different levels of shock. The one on the far left is 15V, and goes all the way to 450V on the far right. Considering the average plug in the UK is 240V, the last shock level is potentially fatal. Below the switches, different things are shown. Underneath 15V, it would say “Mild Shock”. The as you reached 450V, it said “XXX Extremely Dangerous”.

Everytime the learner was incorrect, a shock would be administered, but at the next level. So the first wrong answer would warrant a 15V shock. The second wrong answer would warrant a 30V shock, and so on. The shocks increased in fifteen volt increments. Of course, the shocks were never actually administered to the learner, but the teacher believed they were.

After a number of increases, the teacher would hear the learner complain about his heart problems and scream “ouch!”. Towards the huge shocks, the tape was silent – indicating the learner was dead or unconscious. This was actually just a tape recording, but added a new element of stress and pressure. The teacher now believed they were harming another person. Many participants showed stress, or refused to continue. The experimenter would then say one of four statements:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no further choice, you must continue.

If the teacher refused to continue after repeated verbal prompts, the experiment was stopped. Otherwise, it was stopped when the teacher gave the lethal 450V shock three times in a row.

How many participants, out of 40, do you think administered the fatal shock?

An astounding 26 or 65% of participants continued through to the end of the experiment. Completely ordinary, sane people were willing to shock a stranger to death simply because they were told they must continue.

Milgram summarised his findings in his 1974 article: “The Perils of Obedience”, stating:

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.

Essentially, he was surprised that so many people would shock at such a high voltage. He originally predicted only 2% of people would do so, but results showed that 65% did.

The ethics of Milgram’s study

To begin, you might want to take a peek at the British Psychological Society’s (BPS) Ethical Guidelines. It is essentially a “code of conduct” which all Psychologists must follow when conducting a study. Click here to view the current BPS guidelines.

So which ones were broken? Let’s take a look at the main problems (ethically) with Milgram’s study.

  • Deception:
    Participants were lied to about the true nature of the experiment; they were told the aim was to investigate punishment and learning, not obedience. Someone who consents to the former study may not wish to participate in the latter, which is unfair on the deceived participant.
  • No psychological or physical harm on participant:
    Most of the participants were fine after the study. They were debriefed, told the true nature of the experiment and met the learner (so they could see for themselves he was fine). However, there was still the potential for long term damage, trauma and other psychological problems. In a follow up questionnaire, one person (of the 40) mentioned they severely regretted taking part and were having complications due to the event. It was a very stressful study, and the stress could also have implications for the participants psychological health – remember, they were lead to believe they might have killed someone in most cases.
  • Right to withdraw:
    Although they were not directly prevented from withdrawing from the study, there was a huge amount of pressure to continue, because of the prompts and authority of the experimenter. The guidelines say that a participant should have the choice to withdraw at any time, without questions or further distress. Milgram did not allow for this.

Which guidelines were adhered to? It’s not ALL bad news…:

  • Consent:
    Milgram asked for consent from participants, in the form of a written signature. It can be argued he did not strictly follow this though, as they consented to take part in the punishment/learning study, not the obedience one.
  • Full debriefing:
    Participants were fully debriefed; the true nature of the experiment was revealed and the participants were allowed to meet the actor portraying the learner. A follow up questionnaire was sent out, allowing Milgram to assess the participants psychological well-being after the study.

Those are the main ethical points for debate with regards to Milgram’s study.

The applications to real life: what’s the relevance of it all?

Of course, the main application of this study is to what it was originally intended to answer: the Holocaust. Normal, kind German soldiers were lead to commit the most horrific and evil of deeds. Why? They were told to by authority figures. This study is scary; anybody can be a killer when put in the right circumstance. This study is used to explain terrorism, hate-crimes and all sorts of social issues. Of course, obedience alone cannot be attributed to certain things, such as terrorism which I just mentioned. It does however create a massive insight as to why normal people can become evil in a matter of minutes.

The more broad applications can be things like the importance of uniform. If the experimenter was wearing jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, would the participants be as willing to go to the lethal shocks? Most likely not. Uniform plays a massive part in how we act towards other people. Bickman (74) conducted a study suggesting the huge influence of uniform on obedience – but that’s for another time!

How many other applications can you think of?

Extra information for the keen.

I have attempted to get hold of the original footage, but unfortunately I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Luckily, there is a program that replicated the experiment to the exact detail, and the videos are on YouTube. The film is in the parts, and here are the three links if you’d like to watch it:

This may help clear up any parts of this I may not have explained very well. It’s a very worthwhile watch.

Thanks again.
Yours Psychologically,

Samuel Eddy.


Entry filed under: Social. Tags: , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. nataliejosh  |  March 10, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    This takes me back to the days of A Level Psychology! We spent like 3 lessons learning about this and all the criticisms of it 🙂 good times!! 🙂 xx

    • 2. Sam Eddy  |  March 10, 2010 at 4:24 pm

      This is true, I spent ages learning about this!
      I managed to write most of this without even doing extra research, I just knew it off the top of my head! Haha.
      I think this makes up the bulk of A level Social Psychology. Can be a little boring if you’ve studied it to death, but people who’ve never heard of it always find it amazing! 🙂


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