The Milgram Experiment: How Far Will You Go to Obey an Order?

Understand the infamous study and its conclusions about human nature

Several rows of dominos have been toppled and one domino is still upright.
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In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of studies on the concepts of obedience and authority. His experiments involved instructing study participants to deliver increasingly high-voltage shocks to an actor in another room, who would scream and eventually go silent as the shocks became stronger. The shocks weren't real, but study participants were made to believe that they were.

Today, the Milgram experiment is widely criticized on both ethical and scientific grounds. However, Milgram's conclusions about humanity's willingness to obey authority figures remain influential and well-known.

Key Takeaways: The Milgram Experiment

  • The goal of the Milgram experiment was to test the extent of humans' willingness to obey orders from an authority figure.
  • Participants were told by an experimenter to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to another individual. Unbeknownst to the participants, shocks were fake and the individual being shocked was an actor.
  • The majority of participants obeyed, even when the individual being shocked screamed in pain.
  • The experiment has been widely criticized on ethical and scientific grounds.

Milgram’s Famous Experiment

In the most well-known version of Stanley Milgram's experiment, the 40 male participants were told that the experiment focused on the relationship between punishment, learning, and memory. The experimenter then introduced each participant to a second individual, explaining that this second individual was participating in the study as well. Participants were told that they would be randomly assigned to roles of "teacher" and "learner." However, the "second individual" was an actor hired by the research team, and the study was set up so that the true participant would always be assigned to the "teacher" role.

During the study, the learner was located in a separate room from the teacher (the real participant), but the teacher could hear the learner through the wall. The experimenter told the teacher that the learner would memorize word pairs and instructed the teacher to ask the learner questions. If the learner responded incorrectly to a question, the teacher would be asked to administer an electric shock. The shocks started at a relatively mild level (15 volts) but increased in 15-volt increments up to 450 volts. (In actuality, the shocks were fake, but the participant was led to believe they were real.)

Participants were instructed to give a higher shock to the learner with each wrong answer. When the 150-volt shock was administered, the learner would cry out in pain and ask to leave the study. He would then continue crying out with each shock until the 330-volt level, at which point he would stop responding.

During this process, whenever participants expressed hesitation about continuing with the study, the experimenter would urge them to go on with increasingly firm instructions, culminating in the statement, "You have no other choice, you must go on." The study ended when participants refused to obey the experimenter’s demand, or when they gave the learner the highest level of shock on the machine (450 volts).

Milgram found that participants obeyed the experimenter at an unexpectedly high rate: 65% of the participants gave the learner the 450-volt shock.

Critiques of the Milgram Experiment

Milgram’s experiment has been widely criticized on ethical grounds. Milgram’s participants were led to believe that they acted in a way that harmed someone else, an experience that could have had long-term consequences. Moreover, an investigation by writer Gina Perry uncovered that some participants appear to not have been fully debriefed after the study—they were told months later, or not at all, that the shocks were fake and the learner wasn’t harmed. Milgram’s studies could not be perfectly recreated today, because researchers today are required to pay much more attention to the safety and well-being of human research subjects.

Researchers have also questioned the scientific validity of Milgram’s results. In her examination of the study, Perry found that Milgram’s experimenter may have gone off script and told participants to obey many more times than the script specified. Additionally, some research suggests that participants may have figured out that the learner was not actually harmed: in interviews conducted after the study, some participants reported that they didn’t think the learner was in any real danger. This mindset is likely to have affected their behavior in the study.

Variations on the Milgram Experiment

Milgram and other researchers conducted numerous versions of the experiment over time. The participants' levels of compliance with the experimenter’s demands varied greatly from one study to the next. For example, when participants were in closer proximity to the learner (e.g. in the same room), they were less likely give the learner the highest level of shock.

Another version of the study brought three "teachers" into the experiment room at once. One was a real participant, and the other two were actors hired by the research team. During the experiment, the two non-participant teachers would quit as the level of shocks began to increase. Milgram found that these conditions made the real participant far more likely to "disobey" the experimenter, too: only 10% of participants gave the 450-volt shock to the learner.

In yet another version of the study, two experimenters were present, and during the experiment, they would begin arguing with one another about whether it was right to continue the study. In this version, none of the participants gave the learner the 450-volt shock.

Replicating the Milgram Experiment

Researchers have sought to replicate Milgram's original study with additional safeguards in place to protect participants. In 2009, Jerry Burger replicated Milgram’s famous experiment at Santa Clara University with new safeguards in place: the highest shock level was 150 volts, and participants were told that the shocks were fake immediately after the experiment ended. Additionally, participants were screened by a clinical psychologist before the experiment began, and those found to be at risk of a negative reaction to the study were deemed ineligible to participate.

Burger found that participants obeyed at similar levels as Milgram’s participants: 82.5% of Milgram’s participants gave the learner the 150-volt shock, and 70% of Burger’s participants did the same.

Milgram’s Legacy

Milgram’s interpretation of his research was that everyday people are capable of carrying out unthinkable actions in certain circumstances. His research has been used to explain atrocities such as the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, though these applications are by no means widely accepted or agreed upon.

Importantly, not all participants obeyed the experimenter’s demands, and Milgram’s studies shed light on the factors that enable people to stand up to authority. In fact, as sociologist Matthew Hollander writes, we may be able to learn from the participants who disobeyed, as their strategies may enable us to respond more effectively to an unethical situation. The Milgram experiment suggested that human beings are susceptible to obeying authority, but it also demonstrated that obedience is not inevitable.

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