Stanley Milgram on Obedience to Authority
Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted a
study focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal
The results of the study were made known in Milgram's
Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974).
So-called "teachers" (who were
actually the unknowing subjects of the experiment) were recruited by Milgram in response to a newspaper ad
offering $4.00 for one hour's work.
(The purchasing power of $4.50 at that time amounted to some 14 loaves of bread or 22 beers).
In preparing to conduct his Study of Obedience Experiments Milgram selected 40 male volunteers who had responded to this advert for persons willing to
participate in a Study of Memory.
The 40 who were chosen were selected to vary in age, educational attainment, and occupation to give an overall
sample that was somewhat representative of the general population.
Individual subjects thus recruited turned up to take part in a
Psychology experiment investigating memory and learning at Linsly-Chittenden Hall, (pictured left), on Yale University's
old campus. He introduced to a stern looking experimenter in a white coat
and to a rather pleasant and friendly co-subject who was also presumably recruited via
the same newspaper ad. The experimenter explained that one subject would be assigned the
role of "teacher" and the other would be assigned the role of "learner."
Two slips of paper marked
"teacher" were handed to the subject and to the co-subject. The co-subject was actually an actor who,
in posing as a subject to the experiment, subsequently claimed that his slip said "learner" such that
the unknowing subject was inevitably led to believe that his role as "teacher" had been chosen randomly.
learner and teacher were
then given a sample 45-volt electric shock from an apparatus attached to a chair into which the "actor-learner"
was to be strapped. The fictitious story
given to the "teachers" was that the experiment was intended to explore the effects of
punishment for incorrect responses on learning behavior.
A succession of unknowing subjects in their roles as teacher were given simple memory tasks in the form of
reading lists of two word pairs and asking the "learner" to read them back and were
instructed to administer a shock by pressing a button each time the learner made a mistake.
It was understood that the electric shocks were to be of increased by 15 volts
in intensity for each mistake the "learner" made during the experiment.
The shock generator that the "teacher" was told to operate had 30 switches in 15 volt increments, each switch
was labeled with a voltage ranging from
15 up to 450 volts. Each switch also had a rating, ranging from "slight shock" to "danger: severe
shock". The final two switches being labelled "XXX".
The text to the top left of Milgram's Shock Box reads:-
SHOCK GENERATOR, TYPE ZLB.
DYSON INSTRUMENT COMPANY,
The display indicated a shock output range of from 15 VOLTS - to - 450 VOLTS.
The above image is rather blurred so the following tabular data may be more convenient for gaining an appreciation of the range of controls at the "Teacher's"
disposal and as he or she acted under the implied authority of the experimenter.
Shock levels indicated during the Milgram Obedience Experiments
Shock Range Labelling Electric Shocks simulated
Slight Shock15 30, 45, 60 volts
Moderate Shock75 90. 105, 120 volts
Strong Shock135 150, 165, 180 volts
Very Strong Shock 195, 210, 225, 240 volts
Note the change from black to red text as the console display moves from :-
Very Strong Shock to Intense Shock and higher
Intense Shock 255, 270, 285, 300 volts
Extreme Intensity Shock 315, 330, 345, 360 volts
Danger: Severe Shock 375, 390, 405, 420 volts
and finally - XXX 435, 450 volts
The experiment was conducted in a scenario where the "learner" was in another room but
the "teacher" was made aware of the "actor-learner's" discomfort by poundings on the wall.
No further shocks were actually delivered - the "teacher" was not aware that the "learner" in the
study was actually an actor who was intended, by
the requirements of the experiment, to use his talents to indicate increasing levels of discomfort as
the "teacher" administered increasingly severe electric shocks in response to the mistakes made
by the "learner".
The experimenter was present in the same room as the "teacher" and whenever "teachers" asked
whether increased shocks should
be given he or she was verbally encouraged by the experimenter to continue.
These encouragements were, in fact, pre-scripted by the research team and followed this pattern:-
Prod 1: Please continue or Please go on.
Prod 2: The experiment requires that you continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice, you must go on.
These Prods were to be deployed successively by the researchers - a higher number Prod
could only be used if a lower number one had proved unsuccessful.
Each experimental session was terminated
whenever Prod 4 failed to induce the "teacher" to continue administering electric shocks.
In this scenario 65% of
the "teachers" obeyed orders to punish the learner to the very end of the
450-volt scale! No subject stopped before reaching 300 volts!
At times, the worried "teachers" questioned the
experimenter, asking who was responsible for any harmful effects resulting from
shocking the learner at such a high level. Upon receiving the answer that the
experimenter assumed full responsibility, teachers seemed to accept the response
and continue shocking, even though some were obviously extremely uncomfortable
in doing so.
In an article entitled
"The Perils of Obedience" (1974) Stanley Milgram wrote:-
"Before the experiments, I sought predictions about the outcome from various kinds of people -- psychiatrists,
college sophomores, middle-class adults, graduate students and faculty in the behavioral sciences. With
remarkable similarity, they predicted that virtually all the subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter.
The psychiatrist, specifically, predicted that most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts, when the victim
makes his first explicit demand to be freed. They expected that only 4 percent would reach 300 volts, and that
only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board".
The Obedience to Authority experiment was continued by Milgram over a number of other scenarios such as
where the "learner" could indicate discomfort by way of voice feedback - at "150 volts", the "actor-learner"
requested that the experiment end, and was consistently
told by the experimenter that - "The experiment requires that you continue. Please go on." or similar words.
scenarion the percentage of subjects who were prepared to administer the maximum 450 volts dropped slightly
Where the experiment was conducted in a nondescript office building rather than within the
walls of a prestigiously ornate hall on Yale's old campus the percentage of subjects
who were prepared to administer
the maximum voltage dropped to 47.5%.
Where the "teacher" had to physically
place the "learner's" hand on a "shock plate" in order to give him shocks above 150 volts
the percentage of subjects who were prepared to administer
the maximum voltage dropped to 30.0% and where the "experimenter" was at end of a phone line rather
than being in the same room the percentage of subjects who were prepared to administer
450 volts dropped to 20.5% and where the "teacher" could himself nominate the shock level
the percentage of subjects who were prepared to continue to the end of the scale dropped to 2.5%
Milgram summed up his findings in relation to the main experiment in "The Perils of Obedience"
"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import,
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' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the
subjects' 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."
Some doubt has been cast on the scientific validity of Milgram's published findings by a journalist named Gina Perry who reviewed the extensive archives relating to the experiment and interviewed some of the surviving participants.
She found that whilst Milgram's originally published article mentioned some forty participants, of which some twenty-six proved to be obedient, some seven hundred naive participants were actually "tested" in various experimental scenarios with varying results as to their "obedience".
Some of those being tested reported doubts about the credibility of the scenario they were involved in - voice feedback from "punished" learners
seeming to come from a loudspeaker high on a wall rather than from a slightly open door to a room where they were given to understand the "learner" was.
Others seemed to sense that they - as teachers - were under the close scrutiny of the experimenter rather than the learner.
There were instances of the experimenter going beyond the stated four pre-scripted encouragement prompts to the point of being a degree of harassment or bullying in efforts to ensure obedience.
It has also been pointed out that in the original Yale University scenario "teachers" could see themselves as being under the moral guidance of a scientifically
qualified employee of a respected academic institution and to take decisive cues from the "experimenters" evident impassivity in the face of the "learners" protests.
The Milgram Obedience Experiments scenario was given a high-profile repetition on
a French documentary about the effects of reality TV as first aired on a french state TV channel in
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