The Milgram Obedience Experiment

Stanley Milgram. “Behavioral study of obedience.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 67, no.4 (1963), p.371-378.

In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted one of the most important experiments ever done in the field of human psychology and social conformity. For ethical reasons, this study probably could not be repeated today, but that only makes it even more important to raise awareness of its findings.

Milgram, a psychology professor at Yale University, recruited 40 male subjects of diverse occupations and educational levels from the surrounding area. When they arrived at the laboratory, he told them that they would be participating in a study on the role of punishment in learning, and that they might be either the “teacher” or the “learner”, based on a random draw. In fact, the draw was rigged. The participant was always the “teacher”, while the “learner”, who was introduced as a fellow participant, was secretly a confederate of Milgram’s.

The two participants were introduced. Then, in view of the teacher, the learner was strapped to a chair and had an electrode placed on his wrist. The teacher was then ushered into an adjacent room and was shown what they were told was an electric shock generator. It had 30 clearly marked levels, beginning at 15 volts and proceeding by 15-volt increments to a maximum of 450 volts. Each group of four switches was also given a verbal label, ranging from “Slight Shock” at 15 volts to “Danger: Severe Shock” at 400 volts. The two highest levels were simply labeled “XXX”. The subject was told that the generator was connected to the electrode on the learner’s wrist. In reality, the generator was a dummy, wired to flash a light and move a voltmeter when the button was pressed, but otherwise do nothing. The subject was also told that the shocks could be extremely painful, but could not cause any permanent tissue damage or injury.

The experiment was a simple exercise in matching words on a list, with the learner signaling an answer via switches that lit up one of four lights on a display in the teacher’s room. Every time a wrong answer was given, the teacher was instructed to give the learner a shock and move the machine’s intensity setting up by one level. The experiment was designed so that the teacher would have the opportunity to proceed through the full range of shocks. As prearranged by Milgram, upon reaching the 300-volt level, the learner would pound on the wall separating the two participants, and from that point on would no longer answer the questions. The subject was instructed by the experimenter, who remained in the room with him, to treat the absence of a response as a wrong answer and to continue with the experiment. If the teacher objected, the experimenter answered from a fixed list of replies, such as, “Please continue,” “The experiment requires that you continue,” or, “You have no choice, you must continue.” Only if these prods could not persuade the subject to obey was the experiment terminated before reaching the highest shock setting.

Before the study was run, 14 Yale psychology majors to whom the experiment was described in advance predicted that only between 0 and 3% of subjects would obey the experimenter all the way through to the end and administer the most potent shock. In fact, of the forty subjects, twenty-six – an astonishing 65% – went all the way through to the end, administering what they had every reason to believe were dangerous shocks to a participant who, by that point, had clearly expressed a wish to stop and had subsequently become unresponsive.

As the experiment proceeded, many of the subjects exhibited signs of extreme stress, sweating, trembling, biting their lips and digging their fingernails into their palms. Some of them expressed concern about the learner or denounced the experiment as stupid, senseless or crazy. Yet they still continued to obey the experimenter and administer the shocks.

From the subject’s perspective, after the 300-volt level, it was a reasonable inference that the learner’s failure to answer any further was because he had become incapacitated and was at serious risk of injury or death if the experiment were to continue. Yet 26 out of 40 subjects continued on regardless, pressing the button at the experimenter’s command to deliver shocks of up to 450 volts (the “XXX” level) to a person who had been unresponsive for as many as ten straight answers. Only 14 of the 40 disobeyed the experimenter’s commands and terminated the experiment at any point before reaching the end.

The Milgram study teaches us much about the dark side of human psychology: the ease with which we come under the sway of authority, and the willingness of many people to suspend ordinary standards of morality and conscience when ordered to do so and hand over the responsibility for their actions to another. Even ordinary, ethical people, who in most imaginable circumstances would never dream of harming an innocent stranger, seem disturbingly susceptible to this flaw.

It is not hard to see in this experiment echoes of the Nazi foot soldiers who committed unspeakable crimes and then claimed, when brought to justice, that they were “just following orders” – the so-called Nuremberg Defense. And ironically, this study shows that those claims may well be true. As much as we might like to believe that those who commit such evil deeds have some intrinsic character flaw, some fundamental defect that makes them not like us, the truth is that acts of great evil can be committed by seemingly normal, ordinary people. Of course, we naturally want to deny this lesson because it means that we, ourselves, might also be capable of such acts under the right circumstances, and this is a disquieting conclusion.

However, even if the Nazis’ claim that they were just following their leaders’ orders was true, it does not excuse what they and others like them did. Morality would be thoroughly worthless if we exempted people from its dictates whenever they fell short due to human fallibility. Instead, its purpose is as a standard for us to live up to, a counterweight to the blindness of obedience to authority. And, do not forget, some people did refuse to obey and terminated the experiment early. Although authority can be a powerful influence on us, we are not helpless against it.

More importantly, by simply being aware of the Milgram study and its implications for our behavior, we can change that behavior and more effectively resist the undesirable tendencies bred into us by evolution. Knowledge of experiments like Milgram’s is itself a causal factor that can influence people’s actions and cause them to choose differently than they otherwise would have. Who, knowing about this study, would not think twice if they ever found themselves in a similar situation? This fits in with what I have said previously: merely by studying and learning about our limitations, we gain the tools to overcome those limitations and become more rational and more responsible human beings.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.